Memories of a frantic day in space
Paul K. Harral
April 14, 1970, was a significant day in my life. I believe that it was the first time I had ever tasted Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine that would become a favorite. That’s also the day that an oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13.
Several United Press International staffers assigned to the mission had gone to dinner after finishing their shifts at the wire service’s bureau on the edge of Houston. I use “shift” in the loose sense of the word because we worked as necessary.
Apollo 13 was planned as the nation’s third Moon landing mission aiming for a touchdown in the Fra Mauro highlands. The mission had launched April 11 from Launch Pad 39A at what was then known as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The timeline called for a television show from space and those of us who were technically off duty dropped by the bureau to provide extra help during that program. One and sometimes two staff members would take running notes on typewriters from the air-to-ground link.
Someone would be in charge of overall operations and one of the wire service’s Space Writers – I was the junior among them – would be in charge of the spot coverage.
NASA kept time beginning with the launch.
At 055:15:04 – that’s 55 hours and 15 minutes since launch – mission Commander James A. “Jim” Lovell Jr. opened the television show. The other two crewmembers were Command Module Pilot John L. Swigert Jr. and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise Jr.
Swigert – originally the backup crew member to Command Module Pilot Thomas K. “Ken” Mattingly – was assigned to the mission when it was determined just days before launch that Mattingly had been exposed to German measles, to which he had no natural immunity.
The crew members gave the television audience a tour of the command module – Odyssey – and the lunar lander – Aquarius.
“And this is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we’re just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. Good night,” Lovell said.
It was 55 hours 47 minutes into the flight and Apollo 13 was 205,000 miles from Earth traveling at 2,225 miles per hour.
About eight minutes later Swigert reported “Houston, I believe we’ve had a problem here.”
Seconds, later, Lovell repeated the message: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Buss undervolt.”
It took a little while, but Mission Control and the crew realized that oxygen tank number two had lost all of its contents, oxygen tank number one was slowly losing its contents, and the command module would soon be out of oxygen and without electrical power.
The decision was to power down as much as possible and move the crew to the Lunar Lander – a contingency that had been anticipated and was referred to as the “LM lifeboat.”
UPI Space Writer Edward K. DeLong was in the “cockpit” of the UPI Space Center bureau, just wrapping up a fresh main lead based on what he said as “a rather forgettable TV show from space.”
“Paul Harral was just across the desk from me with the unenviable job of trying to capture on a typewriter every word spoken on the air-to-ground between Apollo 13 and Mission Control. Paul had just stood up to take a restroom break when Apollo 13 radioed, ‘we’ve got a problem.’ Those words sent Paul back into his seat like a flash, and sent the entire UPI Spaceflight team into action,” DeLong, now living in Australia, said by email.
“As I banged out a new lead based on a severe shortage of information at that point, Paul – one of three spaceflight specialists on the mission – became my backup to make sure we didn’t miss any important details.”
No one would leave their stations for the next several hours.
The UPI Space Writers, in addition to overall knowledge, had unofficial areas of expertise. Mine was Earth re-entry. DeLong’s was spacecraft systems.
“After some rather general descriptions from the astronauts based on what they saw and had felt, Mission Control asked the crew for a health check on all of Apollo 13’s systems. There followed a series of mostly numbers as the crew read off instrument after instrument,” DeLong said.
“I had gone through extensive training on the spacecraft systems and pulled out my copy of the same checklist being used by Mission Control. My training had also taught me the mission rules for these moon flights, and when Apollo 13’s crew read out the numbers reflecting how much oxygen their vehicle had left I realized, with shock, that their oxygen levels had dropped below the amount required for a moon landing,” he said.
Wire service journalists are highly competitive and always want to be first on a story.
Mission Control had not confirmed that there would be no moon landing, but based on DeLong’s knowledge, UPI sent out a bulletin saying there would be no landing.
You want to be exclusive on important stories, but not for an extended period of time.
“Minutes passed, then tens of minutes, the TV networks and many newspapers and broadcasters urgently asked UPI why we were saying there would be no landing when no one else including AP and NASA was saying this,” DeLong recalled. “UPI stuck to its guns, and after what seemed like an eternity, NASA said the same thing.”
This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of Apollo 13. Later investigations revealed the cause of the problems with the oxygen tank that exploded and blew out the side of the Command Service Module.
Journalists can have an oddball sense of humor.
The plaque left behind on the moon at the Apollo 11 landing site read:
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Taped to the transcript position on the desk at the UPI spaceflight bureau was this notice:
“Here men from the planet Earth took transcription while men walked on the Moon July 1969, A.D. We worked like hell for UPI.”
After Apollo 13, another notice was added:
“Here Paul Harral took transcription during Apollo 13. He burst a kidney for UPI.”
My son, Huard Harral is a Junior Cadet Corps teacher at Stripling Middle School in Fort Worth and is always looking for unique ways to expose his students to new learning experiences.
“The Junior Cadet Corps (Middle School JROTC), is focused on the development of leaders and future problem solvers. Our society often looks for the simple solution and not the entirety of the problem. Growing up, my father told me stories of his time with United Press International and his coverage of the NASA space program showing how people working together could accomplish anything.
“In looking at creative problem solving and decision making, I asked my father to come and present his experiences with the Apollo 13 mission. For this instruction I played the movie Apollo 13 and had my father talk about the coverage of that event. The lessons shown of creative problem solving, commitment, dedication and leadership are ones that are needed in our young people today,” he said.
Huard had asked me to bring a slide rule with me for show-and-tell.
That’s important, because one of the riveting memories of that mission was seeing that the NASA people who figured out how to bring three astronauts safely back to Earth did so in part with slide rules and pencils.
Apollo 13 didn’t make it to the surface of the moon, but NASA described it as a “successful failure” because of the experience gained in rescuing the crew.
Fortunately, the space agency never had to apply those lessons during the rest of the program.
Paul K. Harral is associate editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He worked for UPI in Dallas, Denver and Chicago where he was executive editor of UPI’s National Broadcast Department.
For a riveting review of the Apollo 13 mission and the desperate fight to bring the astronaut’s home, visit: https://apolloinrealtime.org/13
This website replays the Apollo 13 mission as it happened, 50 years ago. It consists entirely of historical material, all timed to Ground Elapsed Time – the master mission clock. Footage of Mission Control, film shot by the astronauts, and television broadcasts transmitted from space have been placed to the very moments they were shot during the mission, as has every photograph taken, and every word spoken.
Viewer are able to hear and read not only what the crew members were saying from space, but also the internal communication among the people in Mission Control as they worked to understand the situation and develop responses to it.
This project includes newly digitized and restored mission control audio. The last tapes of these recordings were discovered in the National Archives fall of 2019 and were digitized in February 2020. These recordings haven’t been heard since the accident investigation in 1970.
Be sure to click on the Instructions dropdown.
To skip to the explosion in space move the timeline to: 0055:47:00
The inflight TV show starts at: 055:15:04