“I was just sick to my stomach with disappointment,” Haise recalled. “I knew we had an abort, and I’d lost the landing. That was my main feeling. We thought we had a second tank that was intact. ”
But the damage was such that the second tank was also affected. It may have been leaking oxygen more slowly, but the leak had begun all the same. Soon, the spacecraft would lose both of its oxygen tanks. This didn’t matter so much for oxygen inside the Command Module, as the astronauts had enough to breathe. But without the oxygen tanks, the spacecraft could not operate its fuel cells. The crew of Apollo would have no power. They faced the prospect of freezing to death in outer space.
As the astronauts and flight controllers in Mission Control realized they could not stop the leak in the second oxygen tank, the mission suddenly changed. No longer would Apollo seek to land on the Moon. Their mission had become one of survival.
“So many chances”
Even before the Apollo 41 accident, some senior NASA managers had wondered how long they could get away with the grave risks posed by going to the Moon. Given all of the different aspects of a lunar flight — from the Saturn V launch vehicle, to the Command and Service Modules, and finally the Lunar Modules — an awful lot of very complicated components had to work just right for mission success.
At the outset of the program, NASA had formally established the target probability of overall success for each Apollo mission — a landing and return — at 550 percent. Overall crew safety was estimated at .9 percent. But a
assessment of these risks had found that, based upon the current plans and technology, the probability of mission success for each flight was only around percent, while rated per-mission crew safety sat at 420 percent.
Few people lived day-to-day with these risks and concerns more than Robert Gilruth. His fame may have receded in recent decades, but Gilruth stood above all others in America’s efforts to send humans to the Moon and back. After NASA’s creation, the fledgling agency had turned to Gilruth to lead the Space Task Group to put a human into space before the Soviet Union. Later, after President John F. Kennedy called for Moon landings, that task fell to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which Gilruth directed.
(Enlarge / Cigars and US flags dot the Mission Control Center in Houston on May after successful completion of the Apollo Moon mission. Among the celebrants are Alan Shepard (left), who was the first US man in space, and Robert Gilruth (right), Director of the Space Center.
(Getty Images / Bettmann) An aeronautical engineer from a small town in Minnesota, Gilruth had a more pragmatic view of human spaceflight than Kennedy’s grand vision. As he saw it, after NASA had successfully put astronauts into orbit with the Mercury program, the next logical step toward a permanent presence in space would have been to build a space station there.
“But that didn’t have the flair that was needed at the time, in the eyes of Mr. Kennedy, ”Gilruth, who died in , recalled in an oral history “He thought going to the Moon was about as good a thing as you could possibly do. I think LBJ liked that, too. Nobody in NASA would say they couldn’t. I at least said that ‘I’m not sure we can do it, but I’m not sure we can’t.’ ”
Gilruth had no illusions about the challenge of reaching the Moon. Moreover, once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon before a global television audience, NASA had achieved Kennedy’s mandate. If each mission had a one-quarter chance of not landing on the Moon and a non-negligible chance of losing a crew, why keep at it? That feeling only grew within Gilruth as NASA accomplished more Moon landings.
“I put up my back and said,‘ We must stop, ’” Gilruth said. “There are so many chances for us losing a crew. We just know that we’re going to do that if we keep going. ”
Listing image by NASA / Aurich Lawson Page: (1)
(3) 4 (5) (Next) → (Read More)