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Today In History – April 11 – Apollo 13 Launched To Moon

1814: Napoleon exiled to Elba: On this day in 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France and one of the greatest military leaders in history, abdicates the throne, and, in the Treaty of Fontainebleau, is banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba. More here

1951: Truman relieves MacArthur of duties in Korea: In perhaps the most famous civilian-military confrontation in the history of the United States, President Harry S. Truman relieves General Douglas MacArthur of command of the U.S. forces in Korea. The firing of MacArthur set off a brief uproar among the American public, but Truman remained committed to keeping the conflict in Korea a “limited war.”

Problems with the flamboyant and egotistical General MacArthur had been brewing for months. In the early days of the war in Korea (which began in June 1950), the general had devised some brilliant strategies and military maneuvers that helped save South Korea from falling to the invading forces of communist North Korea. As U.S. and United Nations forces turned the tide of battle in Korea, MacArthur argued for a policy of pushing into North Korea to completely defeat the communist forces. Truman went along with this plan, but worried that the communist government of the People’s Republic of China might take the invasion as a hostile act and intervene in the conflict. In October 1950, MacArthur met with Truman and assured him that the chances of a Chinese intervention were slim. Then, in November and December 1950, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed into North Korea and flung themselves against the American lines, driving the U.S. troops back into South Korea. MacArthur then asked for permission to bomb communist China and use Nationalist Chinese forces from Taiwan against the People’s Republic of China. Truman flatly refused these requests and a very public argument began to develop between the two men. More here

1970: Apollo 13 launched to moon: On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13, the third lunar landing mission, is successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise. The spacecraft’s destination was the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon, where the astronauts were to explore the Imbrium Basin and conduct geological experiments. After an oxygen tank exploded on the evening of April 13, however, the new mission objective became to get the Apollo 13 crew home alive.

At 9:00 p.m. EST on April 13, Apollo 13 was just over 200,000 miles from Earth. The crew had just completed a television broadcast and was inspecting Aquarius, the Landing Module (LM). The next day, Apollo 13 was to enter the moon’s orbit, and soon after, Lovell and Haise would become the fifth and sixth men to walk on the moon. At 9:08 p.m., these plans were shattered when an explosion rocked the spacecraft. Oxygen tank No. 2 had blown up, disabling the normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water. Lovell reported to mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” and the crew scrambled to find out what had happened. Several minutes later, Lovell looked out of the left-hand window and saw that the spacecraft was venting a gas, which turned out to be the Command Module’s (CM) oxygen. The landing mission was aborted.

As the CM lost pressure, its fuel cells also died, and one hour after the explosion mission control instructed the crew to move to the LM, which had sufficient oxygen, and use it as a lifeboat. The CM was shut down but would have to be brought back on-line for Earth reentry. The LM was designed to ferry astronauts from the orbiting CM to the moon’s surface and back again; its power supply was meant to support two people for 45 hours. If the crew of Apollo 13 were to make it back to Earth alive, the LM would have to support three men for at least 90 hours and successfully navigate more than 200,000 miles of space. The crew and mission control faced a formidable task.

To complete its long journey, the LM needed energy and cooling water. Both were to be conserved at the cost of the crew, who went on one-fifth water rations and would later endure cabin temperatures that hovered a few degrees above freezing. Removal of carbon dioxide was also a problem, because the square lithium hydroxide canisters from the CM were not compatible with the round openings in the LM environmental system. Mission control built an impromptu adapter out of materials known to be onboard, and the crew successfully copied their model.

Navigation was also a major problem. The LM lacked a sophisticated navigational system, and the astronauts and mission control had to work out by hand the changes in propulsion and direction needed to take the spacecraft home. On April 14, Apollo 13 swung around the moon. Swigert and Haise took pictures, and Lovell talked with mission control about the most difficult maneuver, a five-minute engine burn that would give the LM enough speed to return home before its energy ran out. Two hours after rounding the far side of the moon, the crew, using the sun as an alignment point, fired the LM’s small descent engine. The procedure was a success; Apollo 13 was on its way home.

For the next three days, Lovell, Haise, and Swigert huddled in the freezing lunar module. Haise developed a case of the flu. Mission control spent this time frantically trying to develop a procedure that would allow the astronauts to restart the CM for reentry. On April 17, a last-minute navigational correction was made, this time using Earth as an alignment guide. Then the repressurized CM was successfully powered up after its long, cold sleep. The heavily damaged service module was shed, and one hour before re-entry the LM was disengaged from the CM. Just before 1 p.m., the spacecraft reentered Earth’s atmosphere. Mission control feared that the CM’s heat shields were damaged in the accident, but after four minutes of radio silence Apollo 13’s parachutes were spotted, and the astronauts splashed down safely into the Pacific Ocean. More here

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