Survival Stories #5: Apollo 13

August 20, 2009

I'm Cade Courtley, Navy SEAL and host of Spike TV’s Surviving Disaster. I've heard a lot of great survival accounts over the years.  However, these 10 individual narratives represent true self-preservation through instinct, and a never-say-die attitude. This list is a chronicle--a testament--of what I find most impressive in defining true individual strength and human perseverance.  These few did not just lead to legend, but more importantly and most basic, survival.

On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13, NASA’s third attempt to get a few guys on the moon, came very close to being one of the biggest disasters in the history of the administration’s existence. Only by the cunning, bravery, and sheer intelligence of the astronauts who manned the mission and the flight directors who helped them on the ground in Houston was tragedy averted.

The three astronauts who manned Apollo 13 were James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise. During their flight to the moon they “stirred” the hydrogen and oxygen tanks in order to better gauge the levels of their contents. Thanks to insulation that was damaged, one of the oxygen tanks ignited and caused a dangerous fire. Everything just got worse from there.  Lovell’s reaction to this mishap has gone down in history as one of the most famous understatements ever: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

The moon landing was cancelled. The rest of the mission was now dedicated to getting these men home alive. The flight directors in Houston had a lot to figure out – namely, how to equip the lunar module (the part of the ship that was meant to support two men for two days, but ended up supporting the three of them for four days) with a device to remove excessive carbon dioxide. They put together “the mailbox” and told the astronauts how to build and install it themselves, and, in doing so, helped save their lives.

The directors then had to create a completely different flight path for Apollo 13 to take so that, on its limited power supply, it could make it back to earth. They managed to do this under excruciating deadlines and freezing cold temperatures on-board the lunar module since they had to conserve its fuel for the trip home.

Lovell, Swigert, and Haise made all these adjustments with astounding precision, accuracy, and skill despite suffering from cold, exhaustion, and lack of water. They returned to earth not much worse for wear, and soon thereafter received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon. Their heroic bravery and incredible talent in the face of horrifying obstacles made them the three most famous astronauts ever to not walk on the moon.

Stay tuned to as I’ll be unveiling the top 10 most inspiring survival stories one-by-one over the following weeks.



Want more? Check out Survival Story #6: Joe Simpson


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