"Houston, we have a problem."
The Apollo 13 mission, America's third attempt to land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth, launched on 11 April 1970 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Aboard were Commander Jim Lovell, lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and command module pilot Jack Swigert, a late replacement for Ken Mattingly, who had been exposed to rubella days earlier.
The mission was so routine that a live telecast from the spacecraft -- one that would have been watched eagerly by millions during Apollo 11 a mere nine months before -- wasn't carried by network television because it was "about as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburg." And then, almost 56 hours into a mission that had been perfect save for a premature engine cut-off during ascent, an event occurred that endangered the lives of the astronauts and transfixed the world.
Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston ordered Swigert to stir the two oxygen tanks that provided electricity, breathable air, and water to the command module Odyssey. A normal procedure went terribly wrong: warning lights flared, a bang shook the spacecraft and thus began the most perilous journey home ever recorded, in an environment inimical to human life.
Without the efforts of hundreds of mission controllers, ground crew, engineers and manufacturers across America, Odyssey could not have made it safely back to Earth.
"Failure is not an option." -- Gene Kranz, Flight Director
The Singing Wheel had been the post-mission destination of choice since the middle of the Gemini program, and remained so even when media hordes with moon fever descended on Houston and celebrations occurred in hotels and bars across the city. Flight controllers would break out the victory cigars, secure their data, lock up their consoles, and head over to their favorite watering hole to begin the first round of bragging.
Gene Kranz remembered the baffled disbelief following the Apollo 1 fire, when they had talked over catastrophe. Tragedy. Other times, like tonight, it was a raucous party where they began codifying the stories that every flight controller would feast on for the rest of his life. They'd brought Apollo 13 home and deserved to let off some steam.
Glynn Lunney brought Gene a mug of beer, and they clinked glasses before drinking. "To a safe return," Gene said. He'd been the lead flight director with his White Team, while Glynn had headed the Black Team shift. Both of them fell silent, listening to the babble of voices, soaking in the mood of unabashed cheer.
"We made it," Glynn finally said, his eyes refocusing from a distance stare. "They're back. They're safe."
"Hallelujah," Gene said. The word could have sounded sarcastic, but Gene invested every syllable with the complete and total relief he'd felt when cameras aboard the Iwo Jima showed the Odyssey drifting toward the Pacific Ocean, borne up by three red and white parachutes. Tension and worry and dread he hadn't allowed himself to experience, because giving in to them would have been a potentially deadly distraction, had disappeared in a surge of joy and thanksgiving that had left his hands shaking and his eyes wet.
The cheers that had echoed around mission control had shown he wasn't the only one feeling immense relief and elation.
Gene was the one in charge as the prime flight director, the one who had to take any action necessary for crew safety and mission success. Every flight controller worked under him, diagnosing and monitoring the myriad systems that came together to form a spacecraft capable of reaching the moon. Gene listened to their inputs and made the hard decisions after hearing from GNC or EECOM or TELMU or FIDO or up to a dozen others. All of them, each person manning a desk in the Mission Operations Control Room, represented the tip of a pyramid of effort that stretched back to the man who tightened the rivet on some piece of equipment built in Bethpage, New York by Grumman, or at North American Aviation in Downey, California.
"For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost," went the old adage, and Gene knew what the poet must have seen to have written about cascading effects with such stark understanding of consequences.
If Sy Liebergot, an experienced and mission-tested EECOM, hadn't told Gene to power down the command module. If Glynn hadn't been there to focus the confusion of the White Team on their training and procedures in the hour after the accident. If John Arthur hadn't realized how little power they'd have to get the crew home. If Gene hadn't taken the time to think through the contingencies of a direct abort back to Earth.
So many points where ruin could have occurred, and they wouldn't be waiting for the Iwo Jima to steam into Honolulu; they'd be mourning the lives lost because of their failure.
Lovell and Haise hadn't been able to walk on the Fra Mauro highlands, but they'd reunite with their families and play softball at the Independence Day barbeque and be able to live out the remainder of their days. Haise and Swigert could even travel into space again; Gene wondered if Lovell regretted his pre-mission announcement that Apollo 13 would be his last flight, now that he hadn't made it to the surface of the moon.
"Did you hear?" Glynn asked after taking a drink. He had to lick a layer of foam off his upper lip.
"Hear what?" Gene hadn't paid attention to anything outside the walls of mission control for long enough that he'd been surprised to see the sun still rose and set on schedule.
"Brezhnev offered recovery assistance if they didn't hit the designated splashdown zone."
Gene snorted. "It's nice to know the Soviets wouldn't have ransomed them like Gary Powers."
Nicer that the crew was alive, that his flight controllers could celebrate tonight. It was time for Gene to check in with them, find out how they were doing, make sure they knew he was proud of them and their superb work over the past few days.
"It's gotta be instrumentation." -- Sy Liebergot, EECOM
Chaos swirled around Sy Liebergot, the man responsible for electrical systems, as he tried to make sense of his displays. Sy managed the electrical, environmental, and consumables for the command service module, and he had experience to burn. The data were like nothing he'd seen before, even though every man in mission control was drilled again and again in training exercises to deal with sadistic problems created by simulation overseers. Here was one that they hadn't anticipated, so they had to diagnose the problem and take step after deliberate step toward remedy.
There were error calls all over the place. All the data readouts had gone to static, and when they resumed it was with sixty seconds worth of nonsense.
Sy looked down at the pattern of sensor failures and couldn't believe his eyes. Something this massive couldn't be anything other than an instrumentation failure -- it was inconceivable. His flight director was demanding answers and Sy didn't know what to tell him. Hardware didn't break down like this.
"What have we got on the spacecraft that's good?" Gene asked, a bite to his voice, but Sy couldn't reply. What the hell was going on here?
Time passed as Lovell and Swigert called down readings and other flight controllers babbled about their systems and Sy worked his way through the problem with the help of his support staff across the hall on voice channels. Gene had said not to guess, and they all knew from simulations that diagnosing a cause was essential to prevent making things worse. Main bus B undervolt. Dropping power levels. A loud bang.
Sy suggested different fuel cell and power bus configurations to try to get back to nominal, but none of them worked. The reentry batteries were being tapped to keep Odyssey alive and that was bad. Very, very bad -- the spacecraft had to have those reserves to come through Earth's atmosphere safely.
Hundreds of pages of engineering documents. Design schematics, procedures, system integration, flight plans. Thousands of man hours training for missions, and hundreds of hours of actual spaceflight. Two successful moon landings, four triumphant trips to the moon and back. Colleagues who knew electronics and circuits and switches better than they knew their wives' faces. And still Sy's hands trembled and he felt himself on the edge of panic.
Arnie Aldrich, chief of the command and service module systems branch, came over to Sy's console and watched him working, offered to help but Sy didn't know what to ask for. Arnie went away for a while as Sy tracked down sensor readings and correlated them with system hardware. He was vaguely aware of voices behind him while he asked questions and got answers from his support staff, but managed to block out most of the other stations' chatter. Gene was leaving him alone for the moment.
Arnie came back and said, "I've been on the phone with John Arthur," one of the best EECOMs they had, someone who knew the sensor patterns backwards and forwards. "He says it's not an instrumentation failure -- the readings are all wrong for that."
A voice in the back of his head had been whispering to Sy and this tipped it over into certainty. "This is something real, then." A massive systems failure that made no sense. They didn't have enough information about conditions on Odyssey, didn't know what was causing the power loss and the error readings and every other problem they'd been trying to solve. What the hell did they do now?
Hard thinking and calculation over their options, and Sy finally realized what they had to do. He called Gene over and recommended the crew shut down reactant valves to the fuel cells to isolate the leak.
"You'd better think about getting into the LM," Sy said to Gene after they decided to power down the command and service module entirely. "We've only got two more hours in the last fuel cell."
"Lunar lifeboat," Gene said, and called TELMU Bob Heselmeyer, Sy's counterpart on the lunar module Aquarius, through the voice loop, telling him to calculate minimum power levels Aquarius would need to keep the crew alive.
Potential Tragedy: Power Drain
It could have gone another way, easily. Branches along a decision tree stretching back to Mercury could have allowed weaknesses to slip into the system. Perhaps Gus Grissom and Ed White and Roger Chaffee didn't die in a tragic fire upon the launch pad; maybe they traveled into space as Apollo 1 and returned safely and bred overconfidence and hubris. The capsule design held, mission controllers didn't reinvestigate and inspect their procedures, didn't ensure that every second, every system, would be foolproof. Less time for training and simulation, fewer attempts to create an atmosphere of assurance and discipline and competence, and different decisions in the initial moments of the crisis lead to tragedy.
Sy Liebergot, sitting in front of his console and presented with a situation nobody ever imagined, tips over into panic. He wavers, keeps trying fruitless repairs as his heart beats faster and faster and his breathing goes shallow and quick. He can't think, can't make crucial decisions and thus the oxygen surge tank, vital for reentry, is depleted by the fuel cells.
The service module goes dead and cold, the astronauts retreat to the lunar module and drift along their trajectory around the moon and past Earth and out into the solar system, voices growing weaker and weaker until the moment when a hiss of static is the only thing heard on the radio and everyone in mission control and NASA and the United States and world realize that Lovell and Swigert and Haise are dead.
They travel ever outward, and a morbid few space enthusiasts keep track of their position until the corpse of Apollo 13 exits the solar system and flies ever onward into the Milky Way, a monument to a disaster that couldn't be averted.
+ + +
"I want you all to forget the flight plan. From this moment on, we are improvising a new mission." -- Gene Kranz, Flight Director
Gene walked into the room where his White Team had retreated after Glynn Lunney's Black Team had taken over their regular shift in the control room. Everyone was talking to somebody else, layer upon layer of discussion blurring into cacophony. He had to get them back on track, concentrating on mission survival. Apollo 13 was the first of the lunar shots that wasn't on a free return trajectory, one that would take them around the moon and back to Earth in compliance with laws of gravity codified centuries before by Sir Isaac Newton. The ship had been entering the lunar sphere of influence when the accident occurred, gravity pulling them toward Earth's only satellite. If the Odyssey and Aquarius continued on their current flight path, they'd circle the moon and miss Earth completely on the outward journey.
The white vest his wife had sewn for this mission needed to be straightened. Her gift was a tradition Gene would never admit he found comforting, but he was glad he had her creation surrounding him, tangible evidence of her love. He carried an inches-thick binder that held the flight plan, useless now. They had a disabled command and service module, a working lunar module without enough engine thrust or navigation capability or heat shielding to land on Earth, and three astronauts in jeopardy.
His experts, young and bright and brash, argued about the best course of action -- a burn of Aquarius' engines to place it back on a trajectory to slingshot the moon, or a direct abort via Odyssey's more powerful engine, turning on a dime to get back to Earth immediately. They didn't know what had been damaged on the craft, although the emptied oxygen tanks and drained fuel cells argued for something catastrophic. Would the Odyssey's engines hold? Did they have enough supplies aboard to keep the crew alive through a journey around the moon?
There was no consensus to be found. The flight controllers were almost all in their twenties, recent graduates of engineering universities throughout America. The space program had started from nothing and no senior or retired staff existed -- every person here had helped create the Apollo program from scratch. They had encyclopedic knowledge of systems because they'd worked with the companies that built them and integrated them, had gone through training and simulations and thought about contingency after contingency. Except nobody had thought of this one, and every person who knew something about flight dynamics bickered over his pet theories.
His gut told Gene that a direct abort was a bad idea -- what if the main engine was damaged? If they were going to head back to Earth right away, they had to execute the burn now, and they still had a fuzzy picture of conditions. Making decisions quickly was never a good idea -- haste bred disaster in the complex mix of subsystems that made up the Apollo spacecraft.
The lunar module wasn't designed for the strain that would be asked of it, but Gene had seen it perform brilliantly on three previous missions. Equipment could adapt to demands that had never been imagined when it was conceived.
Go around the moon, give the ground more time to ponder their options, and work on solutions that would get the crew home alive. That was what they would do.
Potential Tragedy: Direct Abort Engine Burn
In another world a book rests on a library shelf, its pages telling the story of a different Apollo 13. A decision to return to Earth immediately, made by a man other than Gene Kranz, one who didn't know the lunar module capabilities. An engine that wasn't able to perform as asked by mission control, even though nursed along by the superb pilots and navigators who were Lovell and Swigert and Haise.
They analyze the trajectory after the burn and see that their efforts didn't work. Apollo 13 is 200,000 miles away from Earth and heading directly for the moon. They try to adjust their course, using Aquarius' engines, but don't have enough power to reach the correct position and velocity.
Amateur astronomers aim their telescopes at the moon when it shines round and full in the night sky. Even those with large lenses and fine focus cannot see the new crater that bloomed when Apollo 13 crashed into the Ocean of Storms, close to where Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed during Apollo 12. A seismic monitoring station those previous travelers installed detects the impact of both the joined Odyssey and Aquarius and also stage S-IVB of the Saturn V rocket that launched the doomed voyage. The stage S-IVB collision was planned.
The wreckage of Apollo 13 is lost amid the dark splotches of maria that comprise that part of the moon, but it is never forgotten.
+ + +
"Power is everything. Without it they don't talk to us, they don't correct their trajectory, they don't turn their heat shield around. We gotta turn everything off. Now." -- John Arthur, EECOM
John Arthur leaned against the bar, so tired and drained now that the rush of re-entry had dissipated that he almost wished he'd gone straight home. He'd stood together with his colleagues in mission control and watched as the rescue helicopters landed on the deck of the Iwo Jima, watched the prayer of thanksgiving as Lovell and Haise and Swigert stood amidst sailors, bearded and fragile. The scent of burned coffee and stale pizza and sketchily-washed men had hit him then, familiarity turning to strangeness in a heartbeat. John had let his mind go blank, because every moment of the preceding week had been spent in feverish thought and calculation.
Manage the consumables. Work the numbers. Strip the command module down to the bare essential systems needed for re-entry. Nurse every amp of electricity through a bastardized command module power-up sequence, create a checklist none of the astronauts had ever seen before, and sit thousands of miles away and hope that it worked as well as they thought it would. They'd tested it on the ground, and checked and rechecked the math, but this situation had never been foreseen. The command module had never needed to be powered up from nothing, after days in the cold darkness of space.
Lyle, the Singing Wheel's owner -- almost an honorary member of flight control after all these years -- slid another mug of beer across the bar. "You look like you need it," he said.
John picked the mug up and took a drink, feeling the fizz of alcohol slide through his veins and relax him that much more.
"Thanks," he said. "I think I do." And then Bill Peters, who had managed the lunar module through the crisis, was pounding on John's back.
"Congratulations, John. You got them back."
All John could do was smile, and push the heavy horn-rim frames of his glasses higher up his nose.
"It wasn't any 'Set S.C.E. to Aux,' was it?" Bill asked, and lit another cigarette with his Zippo.
"That's for damn sure," John said, remembering the hours of independent research that had equipped him to make one laconic call and save Apollo 12 mere seconds after launch.
Nobody had prepared for the situation they faced with Apollo 13, even with the hundreds of simulations they ran before each mission. It really was a miracle. Reverse the power flow so the lunar module could provide extra juice to the command module, sequence the procedures right, and wonder of wonders, it succeeded.
John blinked and looked up. While he had been lost in his reflective fugue, the flight surgeon, Willard Hawkins, had arrived.
"Barkeep, one for me, please," he said.
"How are they doing, doc?" Bill asked. Hawkins had stayed behind to get a report from the Iwo Jima's medical staff, worried about the condition of the astronauts.
"Terrible," Hawkins said. "Lovell lost 14 pounds, Haise has a urinary tract infection and a fever, and all of them are exhausted and dehydrated. Swigert could barely focus during the neurological exam."
John's head swirled, and he could feel his face drain of blood. He leaned more heavily on the bar, and took a deep breath as the surgeon continued, "But they'll recover, thanks to you guys."
Bill must have noticed John wasn't well, because he asked, low-voiced amid the crowd, "John, is something wrong?"
John shook his head, because nothing was wrong, really. He hadn't known, when he asked the crew to implement a brand new, exacting checklist that had to be completed perfectly for them to survive, and he should have known. He should have realized they were on the edge of breakdown.
He finally said, "We're lucky, Bill. That just hit me." They did it right, all of it, to get the command module powered up. That was all that mattered.
Potential Tragedy: Command Module Power Up Sequence
They wait and wonder, in mission control, as Jack Swigert implements the power up sequence. To save precious amps, they don't turn on the instrumentation system that broadcasts status and lets Odyssey and mission control know if the progression was normal until the very end.
Something goes wrong. The instrumentation system shows that an error was made during power-up. The batteries are exhausted before re-entry begins.
John Arthur wakes from his sleep that night, cold sweat running down his back, terrified from a dream that all the astronauts died.
Except it isn't just a dream.
It's a reminder of how he couldn't fulfill his responsibilities, a moment of realization that haunts him for the rest of his life.
He will wake from sleep, even years later, panicked that he didn't consider the health of the crew before asking them to perform an intricate, difficult procedure vital to their survival. He solved the power problem in theory.
He failed the mission. He failed the men who were the mission.
+ + +
"Look, tell him three to one." -- Glynn Lunney, flight controller
Glynn and Gene reunited after making the rounds of the Singing Wheel. Glynn's feet wanted to trip him, and he thought vaguely that this should be his last beer if he wanted to get home safely. After all the effort to get three astronauts back, it would be a shame for a flight director to come to harm because of the celebration.
A burst of laughter drew Glynn's eyes, and he was glad to see everyone relaxing.
"They doing okay?" Glynn asked. He'd noticed that ties were getting looser and looser around necks, and shirts were coming untucked. The only time he'd seen that in the past week was when they were waking up from naps on the cots located in a back room.
"They are feeling no pain," Gene replied. "Although they might regret it when we get together tomorrow to write the post-mission report."
Both men snickered, and Glynn felt a bubble of near-hysteria. He knew they'd have to review every decision they'd made over the past week, and determine if they'd done things wrong because of panic or misunderstanding of the situation.
Gene had always believed his team would get them back. Glynn hadn't had that kind of faith. The circumstances were so dire, so outside anything they'd encountered in all the flights into the dark vastness of space, and Glynn didn't know if their efforts would bear fruit. He knew mission control would do everything possible, but if something more had gone wrong aboard Odyssey or Aquarius, they couldn't have done anything. They were forced to watch and wait and transmit orders via radio signals that took more than a second to reach the ship, more proof of their essential helplessness.
The President had asked for odds, and Gene wouldn't say anything other than, "We are not losing the crew." Glynn kept seeing every way things could get worse, weaknesses of the spaceship magnified by the explosion and the lack of power and the other scarce resources. There were moments, as he'd made his way through the room smiling at his flight controllers and listening to them boast and marvel over their exploits during the mission, where he couldn't quite believe that they'd succeeded. It made almost no sense, and he had to blink and breathe deep and watch the young faces surrounding him for assurance.
Writing the report tomorrow would be good, would allow Glynn to soak in the facts of the mission: an accident, confusion and questions about what was going on, hour upon hour of problems and solutions, and at the end, victory.
"Well, well," Gene said. "Look who's shown up to check on the bullpen."
Thomas Paine, NASA's Administrator -- the man who led the agency and could have interfered with the rescue effort, but had instead just asked what he could do to help -- was making his way through the crowd.
"Gentlemen," he said when he reached Glynn and Gene. Glynn didn't think he'd ever seen Paine smiling so wide.
"Sir," Gene said. "Glynn and I were just talking about how we'll need to start writing the mission report tomorrow."
"Not tomorrow," Paine said.
Glynn wasn't processing thoughts quickly at the moment, and the expression on his face must have grown quizzical.
"No, gentlemen, tomorrow you, and the rest of mission control, will be otherwise occupied."
Glynn looked at Gene, who looked confused but like he was trying to hide it.
"The President called me after splashdown," Paine continued. "He wanted to do something to show his appreciation for those who helped get them back safe, and offered me the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Glynn blinked, surprised.
"And I told Mr. Nixon that the people who deserved his thanks were the mission operations team, and a little bit of conversation and he agreed. So you, Gene, and you, Glynn, and Sig Sjoberg, and Mill Windler, and Gerry Griffin, are going to be meeting the President and receiving the highest honor our country gives to civilians."
Gene shook his head, rubbed at the back of his skull where his hair was buzzed short, and took another swallow of beer.
"Given that tomorrow is Saturday, I think the report should wait until Monday. Give you boys some time to recuperate, catch up on your sleep." Paine glanced around the room. "Hey Gene, you want to break it to the rest of them?"
Gene barked a laugh, and nodded sharply. "Yes, sir."
As he went off to the bar to announce this unexpected honor, Glynn wondered what they would have gotten if the crew hadn't landed safely.
Potential Tragedy: Re-entry
The static-blurred voice of Swigert echoes around Mission Control. "I know all of us here want to thank all of you guys down there for the very fine job you did."
Lovell speaks a second later, "That's affirm."
Gene Kranz swallows and clenches his left hand into a fist, but doesn't allow the expression on his face to change. His team can't see any weakness or doubt, not now, not ever.
They've done everything they can to bring Apollo 13 home, and now they have to wait through the agony of communications blackout to see if it was enough.
They wait. Three minutes pass, the normal interval before radio signals are reacquired, and capsule communicator Ken Mattingly calls out to the ship he was supposed to be on. "Odyssey, Houston. Do you read me?"
Static crackles over the radio, not any voices.
Three minutes, thirty seconds, and Mattingly tries again. "Odyssey, Houston. Do you read me? Please respond."
Four minutes, and Mattingly signals once more. "Odyssey, Houston. Let us know you're there, guys."
Five minutes, six, seven, go by, and the aura of mission control shifts from trepidation and concern to dismay. Gene's blunt fingernails have cut shallow wounds in his palms.
None of them want to believe it.
The recovery officer has been in touch with the U.S.S. Iwo Jima this entire time. "Flight, the Iwo Jima is negative on visuals," he reports.
After ten minutes, they all know. The heat shield must have failed when subjected to incredible levels of ionization and pressure.
Apollo 13 burned to death.
The memorial service is held in Houston. Had there been bodies to bury, they would have been laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery with all the dignity and fanfare of a military funeral, but the families request the service be held in a field at the Manned Spacecraft Center, open to the sky where the ashes of their sons and husbands and fathers would forever float on wind currents.
News services from around the world turn their cameras on mourning widows and children and parents. Members of the operations team wear black armbands in a show of their grief. Hands tremble as they opened hymnals and stand to sing Nearer My God to Thee, whose closing verse causes Marilyn Lovell to sob uncontrollably:
Or if on joyful wing,
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
Upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
Wreaths of flowers are sent from around the world. Messages of condolence pour in from both leaders and ordinary people who had been touched by the incredible journey that came to a tragic end.
Man never walks on the moon again. The Apollo program is judged too risky to continue after such a grave failure, one that punched like a knife through the spirit of all those who had prayed for Lovell and Haise and Swigert's safe return. The Soviets try until 1975 to claim the moon for their own, but suffer their own series of disasters and never made it.
More nights than he cares to admit, Gene Kranz looks up into the night sky and is filled with sadness. Forever after, he wonders what he could have done differently, how he could have marshaled his people to think through the repercussions of their decisions, and brought the crew home alive and well.
A plaque rests at the base of Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, Pad A. It reads:
"When once you have tasted flight you will always walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward:
for there you have been and there you will always be." -- Henry Van Dyke
To the memory of the crew of Apollo 13:
Captain James Arthur Lovell, Jr. (USN), commander,
John Leonard "Jack" Swigert, Jr, command module pilot,
and Fred Wallace Haise, Jr., lunar module pilot.
This is where they last touched the earth.
"With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour." -- Gene Kranz, flight controller
On Saturday 18 April 1970, President Richard M. Nixon presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 mission operations team in Houston before flying to Hawaii with the families of the astronauts to meet them as the Iwo Jima pulled into harbor.
The men and women of mission control left the Manned Spacecraft Center that day secure in the knowledge that their efforts had brought their crew back from the brink of disaster. All of them felt an echo of the sheer joy and relief that had burst over them the previous day when they heard the voice of Jim Lovell echo around mission control, "Hello Houston, this is Odyssey. It's good to see you again." No sight had ever been so beautiful as the parachutes deploying from the nose cone of the command module, no sound had ever been so welcome, and they had made it happen.
Thousands of hours of planning and preparation allowed them to do their jobs, follow their training, and get their astronauts home.
We often speak of scientific "miracles" -- forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence. The men and women of the Apollo 13 mission operations team performed such a miracle, transforming potential tragedy into one of the most dramatic rescues of all time. Years of intense preparation made this rescue possible.
The skill, coordination and performance under pressure of the mission operations team made it happen. Three brave astronauts are alive and on Earth because of their dedication, and because at the critical moments the people of that team were wise enough and self-possessed enough to make the right decisions. Their extraordinary feat is a tribute to man's ingenuity, to his resourcefulness, and to his courage.
--Richard M. Nixon, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team in Houston, 18 April 1970