The number 13 holds special significance to many cultures, typically associated with bad luck. When the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, the day takes on the same associations; some treat “Friday the 13th” as a cursed day, while others use it as an opportunity to watch scary movies.
In the spring of 1970 however, Americans were taking interest in another 13: Apollo 13. It wasn’t the mission to the moon that had people talking — the Vietnam war and Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles were making more headlines — but the mission’s designation. Humanity’s greatest scientific endeavor was coming face-to-face with one of its most enduring superstitions.
NASA scoffed at the idea that Apollo 13 was a cursed mission, as did the crew’s commander Jim Lovell. For Lovell, along with the mission’s command module pilot (CMP) Ken Mattingly and lunar module pilot (LMP) Fred Haise, the most interesting part of the mission was its scientific return. Apollo 13 was heading for the Fra Mauro highlands, an area thought to be rich in evidence of the moon’s geological youth. The science was the real story on this mission.
Lovell became the commander of Apollo 13 by chance. He, Mattingly, and Haise were the scheduled to fly Apollo 14 when Apollo 13 commander Alan Shepard was forced out of the mission by a medical problem. Always unwilling to break up a crew if it could be avoided, NASA switched flight assignments between the crews of 13 and 14.
Lovell had no misgiving about the change. He orbited around the moon on Apollo 8 and was thrilled at the prospect of returning to walk on its surface. Whether it was on Apollo 13 or Apollo 14 was irrelevant. His wife Marilyn, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled with flight assignment. Though she wasn’t ordinarily superstitious, she had a bad feeling about this flight.
Marilyn couldn’t help looking at the numbers. Her husband had been in space three times including the trip to the moon. Another mission seemed to be tempting fate. As if bringing her greatest fears to life, the Oscar-winning movie Marooned was released late in 1969, right around the time of the Apollo 13 reassignment. It tells the story of an Apollo crew stranded in orbit after the spacecraft’s engine fails to fire for reentry. The mission’s commander, Jim Pruett, sacrifices himself to leave oxygen for his crewmates. Lovell thought it would be a fun movie to see together; Marilyn had nightmares.
To give the new Apollo 13 prime crew more time to train, the launch was delayed from March 12 to April 11. Numerologists had a field day. The mission’s launch date written numerically was 4-11-70; add the digits to get 13.
To reach its landing site on the moon, Apollo 13 would launch at 1:13 pm Houston time, or 13:13 on a 24-hour military clock. From there, the crew would enter the moon’s gravitational pull on April 13. Luckily, it wasn’t a Friday. April 13 was a Monday that year.
Just days before launch, things started going wrong with Apollo 13 when Haise’s backup Charlie Duke got the measles. Lovell and Haise were immune, but Mattingly wasn’t. If he had picked up the virus from Duke, he would fall seriously ill just as Lovell and Haise were leaving the moon and the crew was reuniting during the all-important lunar orbit rendezvous. Lovell fought to keep Mattingly on his crew, going so far as to argue that there was no better place for a man to get the measles than in a cozy spacecraft with friends, but flight surgeon Chuck Berry said thought otherwise. The risk was too great, and on April 7 Lovell had to make the choice of swapping out Mattingly for his backup CMP Jack Swigert (who was immune to measles) or keep his crew intact and wait for a later flight assignment. Lovell made the switch, and three days before launch found himself in command of a new crew.
The crew of Apollo 13 spent the normal period of rest and relaxation before launch in simulators going through mission phases to make sure Swigert was caught up. His ability was never in question — his intimate knowledge of the command module came from his time writing computer’s malfunction procedures. Rather, the crew needed time to bond and trust one another. Just 48 hours before launch, Swigert was proclaimed fit to fly.
The morning before launch, Marilyn had another unsettling experience when she lost her wedding ring in a shower drain in the beach house she was staying in. She’d never taken it off, and it had never fallen off. What should have been a minor incident felt like an omen.
On April 11, Apollo 13 launched and achieved orbit with only a minor problem: one of the five J-2 engines of the Saturn V’s second stage shut down prematurely. But the other engines took over and fired longer and the mission wasn’t compromised. Two days, seven hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds later, on April 13, one of Apollo 13′s oxygen tanks exploded. Public interest in the mission switched from superstitious curiosity to rapt attention and unity as NASA raced to find a way to bring the crew home safely.
On this Friday April 13th, instead of watching a horror movie, commemorate the anniversary of NASA’s successful failure and watch Apollo 13. Imagine yourself on the far side of the moon in a powerless spacecraft with no control, no communications with Earth, and no certainty if you’re going to make it back at all. Now that’s scary.
Image: Photograph taken by the Apollo 13 crew of the mission’s damaged service module (NASA)