- BBC News World
“Okay, Houston, we had a problem here.”
Thus was announced the beginning of an end that no one had imagined.
Apollo 13 was NASA’s third attempt to put people on the Moon.
It came just 9 months after the triumph of Apollo 11, which saw Neil Armstrong’s famous little step win the space race, leaving the United States victorious over the Soviet Union.
Apollo 12 followed suit, executing its lunar landing with pinpoint precision.
So by the time Apollo 13 lifted off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970 at 7:30 p.m. GMT, NASA seemed to have found its groove and, to the public, a feat that had seemed impossible less than a year earlier it had begun to seem routine.
In this space trip, however, the intention was to place greater emphasis on his scientific performance. Hence its motto: Ex Luna, Scientia, which means “From the Moon, knowledge”.
The crew was to deploy a palette of scientific instruments and bring back samples from humanity’s first visit to the lunar highlands.
But the mission was fatally flawed from the start. I would never land on the moon.
On the third day, when the spacecraft was about 330,000 kilometers from Earth, a strong explosion shook her.
At 55 hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds into the trip, astronaut John Swigert contacted the control center in Houston and uttered that famous phrase.
The outburst set off a catastrophic cascade of events that threatened the spacecraft and the lives of the crew over and over again for 88 harrowing hours.
Finally, at 18:35 GMT on April 17, 143 hours and 22 minutes after launch, the three astronauts were able to leave the command module safely, in the waters of the South Pacific.
The mission that should have been remembered for its contributions to science, went down in history as a “successful failure”, and that success ripped from the tragedy was only possible thanks to people like the electrical engineer Arturo Campos.
His role in the feat of saving the lives of the three astronauts was so recognized that was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970, the highest civil distinction in the United States.
“The three astronauts shook hands to thank him when they arrived from space,” recalls his daughter Leticia. “Two of them attended his funeral, Fred Haise and Commander Lovell,” he told the media.
However, his name is not as remembered as that of other protagonists of that story.
However, it came to light again recently when was chosen to call Moonikin (in English “Luna” and “dummy”) that will occupy the commander’s seat on Artemis I, the test ship of NASA’s ambitious space program that aims to return humans to the Moon by 2025.
Shortly after, representatives of the video game Kerbal Space 2 Program 2 and NASA announced that his name would also appear on a videogame course that will focus on spaceflight simulations.
Arturo Campos was one of the experts called on that fateful April 13, 1970 to deal with the ongoing disaster.
He had worked at the space agency since the early 1960s and was one of the few employees Mexican-Americans at the Johnson Center.
He was proud of his heritage and contributed to efforts to recruit more Hispanic workers for the space program, NASA historians say.
He founded and served as the first president of the Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens 660, a chapter made up of Mexican-American engineers from NASA that awarded scholarships to Hispanic students to pursue university careers.
In addition, he was a representative of the Johnson Space Center’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Program and a member of the employee Hispanic Heritage Program.
But when his sleep was interrupted with the phone call from his alarmed colleagues at the Manned Spacecraft Center, it was because he was the system administrator responsible for power on the Apollo 13 lunar module.
And managing the power was desperately needed to save the lives of those three human beings who were trapped in space.
It took the team in Houston a while to understand, and above all believe, what was happening.
Interpreting the deluge of data that was coming in, they realized there was a problem with the oxygen tanks.
These did more than give astronauts something to breathe. They also powered fuel cells, a piece of technology that combined hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electrical power.
Electrical power was distributed throughout the spacecraft, and the water produced was used to cool the hardware electricity and as the main source of drinking water for the crew.
So any failure in this system meant big trouble, simultaneously threatening the lives of the crew and the electrical soul of the spacecraft.
These systems were so critical that NASA made sure they were well supported. Apollo 13 carried two oxygen tanks and three fuel cells.
They discovered that one of the two oxygen tanks was empty, and the other was leaking. To make matters worse, two of the three batteries were not working.
Nothing in six months of exhaustive training had prepared them for a disaster on this scale.. The simulation instructors had forced them to rehearse almost every failure imaginable. But this was a problem they had never seen before.
Everything was happening at once.
The author of the manual
The options were not many.
Energy was one of the biggest difficulties.
It had to be so brutally rationed that, after shutting down every possible system to save it, the cold, dark ship was reduced to little more than a tin can floating in space.
The three astronauts ended up locked in a single module, which had been designed to house only two, for a few hours.
Campos’ team had created a contingency plan designed to divert electrical power from one module to another, providing enough to return safely.
But it had never been put to the test.
What’s more, this time it was not an imagined scenario: it was an emergency that was getting worse by the minute, throwing up obstacles left and right that the different teams at the Johnson center had to overcome separately and jointly at the same time.
Procedures had to be modified in real time, NASA notes, and that reworking required incredible technical expertise.
Fortunately, Campos’ team had the ideal person: he, the author of that contingency plan.
“When they called me, I rewrote the plan on the fly,” says NASA that were his words. “A year before, I had written procedures for that eventuality.”
The strategy that Campos and his colleagues designed in the Mission Assessment Room based on that plan was a success.
The entire process took about 15 hours, and eventually enough electricity could be diverted from the lunar module’s power sources to the command and service module’s emergency batteries to provide warmth for the astronauts, assist them on their return journey, and allow them to reach safe to Earth.
According to NASA historians, “of not having Had it been for the Campos procedure, it is likely that the Apollo 13 mission would not have been remembered as a failure.(with end) successful, but as a resounding failure“.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.