The “Successful Failure” of Apollo 13- a moment of science

A Moment of Science

Okay Houston we’ve had a problem here. 

“When we heard that, it was 2 AM at Ramstein Air Force Base.”

Colonel Jon Rockstad, now retired in Summerville, was senior search and recovery controller for Apollo 11, 12, and now 13. Rockstad’s main role was to coordinate emergency recovery if something would go wrong with Apollo and require an emergency landing. The past two trips to the moon and back had been nearly perfect, and two days into Apollo 13- it seemed to be the case as well. 

“This is the crew of Apollo 13- wishing everyone a pleasant evening…”

Quick thinking got the crew secure but uncomfortable and on a trajectory back to Earth. But that was only the beginning of their problems as more issues, including where Rockstad was stationed- Ramstein air force base in Germany, were just around the corner.

Nearly 10 minutes after ending a live television broadcast, disaster struck and Apollo 13 was crippled- losing oxygen and power. The mission was no longer to make it to the moon for the 3rd time, but to survive and make it home. 

“They were going to land in the Indian Ocean, we have 130s down there ready to go. Wrong.”

Jon Rockstad

Since Apollo 11 and 12’s splashdowns went without a hitch NASA didn’t deploy rescue crews in the Indian Ocean. The nearest rescue crew was nearly 24 hours away from the Indian Ocean. And of course, when one thing goes wrong- everything does. Rockstad goes on,

“So we were scrambling to get them going when a major thunderstorm came and knocked out all power to Ramstein air force base, including all communications.” 

The only line that still remained operational was a red phone on his desk- a direct line to mission control in Houston. 

In the end, NASA instructed Apollo 13 to manually adjust their course from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific- using more fuel but returning home faster in an area better suited for recovery. 

Despite not landing on the moon, Apollo 13 is known as a “successful failure” due to the combined efforts of everyone involved to bring 3 Americans: Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and John Swiggert back safely despite odds- whether it’s an explosion in space, or a storm in Germany, stacked against you. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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