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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Apollo 13, 45 years later

Apollo 13
PROVIDED
Apollo 13

‘Houston, we have a problem…” 
Every kid on my childhood playground knew the phrase, and it’s one of the most uttered sentences you’ll ever hear when NASA comes up in a conversation. Jim Lovell’s words, however, kicked off one of the scariest, daring and most successful failures modern engineering has witnessed. 
Apollo 13 failed — at least in its original mission. Fifty-six hours after liftoff on April 11, while Lovell, Haise and Swigert hurtled through the emptiness that separates the Earth and the moon, an oxygen tank exploded on the spacecraft. Warning lights flashed, alarms beeped and the craft rocked. Although it was not immediately apparent to the three men and to the ground team at Mission Control that supported them, the crew’s supply of breathable air and electrical power was suddenly in danger. 
The next four days were the most trying times in NASA’s history. They were also among its proudest. 
Engineering challenges never before encountered had to be solved within a matter of hours. Materials and machines had to be repurposed for uses their original designers never intended. And in a strange twist of fate, one of the most urgent challenges NASA engineers had to solve was the classic grade-school question of how to fit a square peg into a round hole — to keep the astronauts breathing clean air, a system to fit square air purifiers into a round slot had to be designed on the fly. 
The answer: duct tape.
The failure and success of Apollo 13 unfolded before the world’s eyes 45 years ago, but the example of grace under pressure that Mission Control and the astronauts exhibited will forever stand as the most inspiring engineering I’ve ever heard of. Three men could have easily died any number of ways — an impact against the moon, a fiery death on re-entry or simply lost to the void of space. The fact that a group of men and women could safely repurpose a spacecraft when they were separated by hundreds of thousands of miles is as inspiring as it gets. 
It’s been a few decades, but America and the world at large are again peering past low Earth orbit toward our celestial neighbors. Rockets, spacecraft and daring missions are again on drawing boards across NASA, Europe, Russia and China. Men and women will soon venture into the unknown once more, and while success is anticipated, there will always be failure. 
Hopefully those future failures prove to be as successful as Apollo 13. 
John Rangel is an aerospace engineering junior and SciTech editor for The Battalion.

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