The Apollo Triskaideka Mission to the Moon … and Back!

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 13 mission became the seventh crewed mission of the Apollo Space Program, number eight if you included Apollo One, which never got off the ground, and which was posthumously designated as number One. As explained in a previous article (, Apollo One would actually have been mission number four, but that designation fell to Apollo 4, the fifth Apollo/Saturn (AS) rocket launch, which was an unmanned test flight that followed the Apollo One tragedy nine months later. This re-started the sequence of missions that followed. So, Thirteen (or triskaideka) was actually the fourteenth Apollo/Saturn (AS) configured rocket built for launch but only the thirteenth to hoist Apollo components into space.

So great is the trepidation of the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia) that the number puts the fear in folk, even going so far as to omit the thirteenth floor in office buildings and hotels. Maybe it would have served NASA best to omit the number thirteen from its designation sequence. Would that have spared the ill-fated crew of Commander Jim Lovell, lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert, the command module (CM) pilot who pinch-hit for Ken Mattingly, who (unluckily?) was grounded for coming down with the German measles.

Perhaps 1970 was just an unlucky year for Apollo, as it happened to be a somewhat rare trilogy for Friggatriskaideka (fear of Friday the thirteenth) were February, March, and November, all with Friday the thirteenth that year.

Most of us heard the story many times, about the accidental ignition of damaged wires within the Service module, causing the oxygen tank to explode while being routinely stirred. The astronauts were en route to the Moon, being launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970. Sadly, for Apollo 8 veteran astronaut Jim Lovell, he would not get a chance for a Moon landing, as he could only sail around the Moon for the second time in his career and wave goodbye.

But was Thirteen so unlucky? After all, their crippled spacecraft did bring the astronauts home alive, thanks in part to the ingenuity of NASA and the versatility of the Lunar Module (LM, pronounced “lem”, originally designated the Lunar Excursion Module/LEM), which served as a lifeboat for the crew, something that had been considered previously as an option by NASA.

The accident occurred 56 hours into the mission on the evening of April 13th with the crew being about 180,000 nautical miles from home. They had just concluded a television broadcast when Swigert was told to turn on switches to activate the stirring fans in the tanks. Ninety-five seconds after activation of those switches, the astronauts heard a “pretty large bang,” accompanied by fluctuations in electrical power. Lovell, thought at first Haise may have created the bang himself as a joke by messing with the cabin-repressurization valve, but he could see that Haise had no idea what had happened, and he knew they “had a problem.”

Worldwide interest in the Apollo program was reawakened overnight by the incident. Apart from the first Moon landing, the rescue received more public attention than any other spaceflight at that time. There were worldwide headlines, as people surrounded television sets to get the latest developments offered by the three major networks, who interrupted their regular programming for bulletins. Four Soviet ships headed toward the landing area to assist if needed.

An estimated 40 million Americans watched Apollo 13’s splashdown in the south Pacific on April 17th, as it was carried live on all three major networks, with another 30 million watching some portion of the six and a half-hour telecast. It is said the crew of Thirteen was unaware of the magnitude of the world-wide interest in their welfare. It wasn’t until they arrived in Hawaii that they understood the significance of their safe return, as they were greeted by President Nixon and his wife Pat.

Jack Gould of The New York Times stated that Apollo 13, “which came so close to tragic disaster, in all probability united the world in mutual concern more fully than another successful landing on the Moon would [ever] have.”

In the words of James Donavan (Shoot for the Moon, 2019), “It wound up being NASA’s finest hour, as Mission Control came up with ingenious solutions to one life-threating situation after another.”

The story of Apollo 13 has been dramatized in television and movies; the most well-known is Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13, which coincided with the mission’s 25th anniversary.

Scientific Rationale for Future Apollo Missions:

Nineteen-seventy (1970), was briefly perceived as a dawning of a new age, with dreams of a permanent Space Station in the coming decade and then flights to Mars in the 1980s. But 1970 was a cusp between two decades of great change in American society and the world. Events that followed the first Moon landing were rapid: the Vietnam War, the Manson murders, the breakup of the Beatle; Woodstock was a broken dream, and so was the push into space to expand our horizon -– an aspiration that was not to be recognized by the new administration of President Nixon.

Prior to the flight of Apollo 13, a memo was distributed in March 1970, as the lunar missions of the Apollo program were to become more complicated and daring. As mentioned previously (, each Apollo mission had a letter designation indicating the type of mission of what it was to be. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing, or the F mission. The one and only G mission would be the first manned landing, the Apollo 11 mission. Apollo 12 was the first of the H missions or H1, which made a precise landing near the unmanned probe Surveyor 3 site in the Ocean of Storms in November 1969.

Later missions were planned up to three years out, detailed scheduling had been made, and a variety of landing sites were chosen for these more sophisticated mission types known as H and J. The latter type-missions would use the Extended Lunar Module, capable of three-day stays on the Moon and carrying the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

The H-class missions were:

Apollo 13 (H2) April 1970, Fra Mauro highlands

Apollo 14 (H3) Littrow crater

Apollo 15 (H4) Censorinus crater (

The next five were J-class missions:

Apollo 16 (J1) Descartes Highlands

Apollo 17 (J2) Marius Hills

Apollo 18 (J3) Copernicus crater (February 1972 – canceled!)

Apollo 19 (J4) Hadley Rille   (July 1972 – canceled!)

Apollo 20 (J5) Tycho crater, The Surveyor 7 site (December 1972 – canceled!)

The Lunar Landing Site List came out in a report to NASA dated March 11, 1970, “Scientific Rationale Summaries for Apollo Candidate Lunar Exploration Landing Sites” from Bellcomm, Inc. (A subsidiary of AT&T, Bellcomm existed to look over NASA’s shoulder and to make suggestions for doing the job better.)

Apollo 18 would be targeting the conspicuous cracking crater Copernicus as a landing site, while Apollo 19 was assigned to the Hadley rille site for a July 1972 landing (this landing site would eventually go to Apollo 15 in 1971). The Apollo 20 mission had been canceled two months before, but the report still suggested its target as Tycho crater or Hyginus rille. The latter site for Twenty was once a 19th-century suspect for intelligent lunar life and an ancient Lunar fortress.

NASA contracted to have 15 flight-worthy Saturn Vs produced. Apollo 11 achieved the first landing with the sixth Saturn V, leaving nine for follow-up landings, expected to occur at intervals of approximately four months through 1972. But the delay from Apollo 13’s misfortune cost the program time and money, which caused setbacks and flight cancellations. With this major delay, the last three missions were canceled, ultimately making Apollo 17 the final journey to the Moon in December 1972.

In all, we would get back to the Moon only four more times after Thirteen, with six successful missions in total and twelve men having walked on the Moon.