The Spacecraft Tarot: Apollo 13

Tippy Ki Yay
5 min readAug 7, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Hanged Man keeps his cool.

In times of uncertainty, we have a choice. We can either completely panic, or we can take a breath and figure out our next move.

The Hanged Man is always in a predicament, in a pickle, in a bind. And while he has every reason to lose his cool, he recognizes that this kind of reaction will in no way improve his situation. With an even breath and a slight smile, the Hanged Man serves as a constant reminder to stay present.

NASA’s Apollo 13 mission was to be the third lunar landing attempt following two successful Moon landings with Apollo 11 and Apollo 12. Despite some minor hiccups, the flight appeared to be going pretty smoothly — until one of the oxygen tanks exploded while en route to the Moon. Three astronauts suddenly found themselves 200,000 miles from Earth with their supply of oxygen, water, and electricity in jeopardy. The mission to the Moon was quickly abandoned — the most important priority switched to the crew’s safe return.

What could’ve been a tragedy not unlike Apollo 1 or Challenger ultimately became one of the greatest stories of human ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination. If the teams on the ground or the astronauts in space hadn’t managed to steady themselves and engineer a series of solutions, the Apollo 13 mission could have easily succumbed to dark vacuum of space—and we would be telling a very different type of story today.

The launch of Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970. Image Credit: NASA

Apollo 13 lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 11, 1970. Two and a half days later, astronauts John Swigert, Fred Haise, and James Lovell had just completed a 49-minute TV broadcast sharing with the world the joys of weightlessness in space. Nine minutes after they closed out and said good night, a large bang was echoed in the spaceship. The vessel shook violently.

Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” Swigert radioed to mission control. Warning lights flashed, indicating the loss of two fuel cells and one oxygen tank. The one other oxygen tank was rapidly depleting. The astronauts watched helplessly as their remaining oxygen vented out into space from their window.

In order to conserve oxygen and power that would be needed for re-entry, the astronauts moved from the command module to the undamaged lunar module, the part of the vehicle that was intended to disconnect and land on the Moon. However, the lunar module only had enough consumables for a 45-hour trip to the Moon.

Ground controllers were forced to throw their carefully written and tested procedures out the window and write new ones from scratch — most notably, the one for navigation. Apollo 13 managed to fly all the way to the Moon and use its gravity to slingshot back to Earth. However, swarms of debris made it difficult for the Alignment Optical Telescope to find a navigation star to orient itself. The alternate procedure used the Sun to set the crew on course.

Some of the new procedures addressed the limited power supply. In order to conserve enough energy to return to Earth, the crew subverted power from the lunar module to the command module and turned off all noncritical systems. With the electricity turned off, the astronauts lost an important source of heat. The temperature dropped to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Condensation covered the walls. Sleep was impossible.

The “mailbox” the Apollo 13 improvised to attach the command module lithium hydroxide canisters to the lunar module’s environmental system to purge carbon dioxide form the space. Image Credit: NASA

Other procedures addressed the carbon removal system. As humans breathe in oxygen and expel carbon, the carbon can build up in tight spaces and reach lethal amounts. The lunar module was designed to accommodate only two people for two days, as opposed to three people for four days. Carbon levels reached dangerous amounts before mission control developed a procedure to attach lithium hydroxide canisters from the command module to the lunar module’s environmental system — a literal example of fitting a square peg into a round hole.

In order to make everything fit, the crew used plastic bags, cardboard, and tape.

The crew also dehydrated themselves to conserve water, which was necessary for water-cooling the systems. Over the course of the mission, the three astronauts lost a total of 31.5 pounds.

When Apollo 13 neared the Earth once again, the crew relied on procedures that were hastily written in three days instead of the usual three months to power up the command module. Everyone feared that the system would short circuit in the cold, clammy environment. Thankfully, the crew was protected by safeguards installed following the disastrous Apollo 1 fire.

Astronauts Haise, Lovell, and Swigert exiting the recovery helicopter shortly after splashing down in the South Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: NASA

Almost a week after launch, the world watched with bated breath as Apollo 13 safely splashed down in Pacific Ocean. Teams on the ground erupted into cheers. Families cried with relief.

Investigation teams following the successful return of crew discovered that the oxygen tank heaters had overheated during testing and had damaged nearby wires, causing the explosion that almost doomed the three astronauts.

Many people are credited for the rescue of Apollo 13. Recently, the efforts of Arturo Campos, electrical engineer, have been recognized by the general public. Campos was one of the few Mexican-Americans who worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. As the electrical power subsystem manager for the lunar module, Campos was responsible for writing the procedure necessary to divert power to the command and service module. This procedure was arguably what saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew.

In this series, we explore stories of both human triumph and tragedy. Space is dangerous. Sometimes astronauts don’t come home.

However, the Apollo 13 story attests what a cool head can do for you in a sticky situation. There are very few times in life when a problem can be solved by panic. The Hanged Man teaches us to stay calm, assess our options, and resist becoming overcome by emotion.

Whether we are hanging upside down by our feet, or find ourselves stranded 200,000 miles from home, the key to survival is the same — stay grounded.

A view of the damage to the Apollo 13 service module, photographed from the lunar module/command module shortly after jettisoning prior to Earth re-entry. Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.