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Local NASA scientist recalls Apollo 13 ‘close call’

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According to The History Press, Apollo was the Greek God of almost everything, including music, poetry, art, prophecy, archery, healing and the sun. But for those of us who followed NASA’s Apollo launches and subsequent space shuttle missions, the exploratory events were far more than a nod to Greek mythology. They were truly “epic.”

I was fortunate enough to personally witness a space shuttle launch in 1995. Ever since then, I have been fascinated by our country’s space exploration programs, and I have tried to keep abreast of NASA-related news and achievements. There was, however, one particular Apollo mission that many Americans will always remember: Apollo 13, which launched on April 11, 1970, from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That mission featured one of the most dramatic events in the history of our country’s space program. 

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It may come as a surprise to Sopris Sun readers to learn that a resident of the Roaring Fork Valley was instrumental in the design and creation of critical components for both NASA Apollo and Shuttle missions. His name is James Lester. 

Lester worked for Beech Aircraft and then Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado from 1960 to 1989. Both companies were NASA subcontractors charged with the development and creation of critical equipment for NASA’s space program. Lester worked on the development of cryogenic storage tanks for super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which were essential components on Apollo and all subsequent NASA shuttle missions. 

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Lester describes the tanks as “metal, spherical thermos bottles, each two to three feet in diameter.” The Apollo spacecraft’s service module held four cryogenic tanks: two for hydrogen (at a pressure of 250 lbs per square inch), and two for oxygen (at a pressure of about 900 lbs per square inch). According to Lester, the contents of the tanks would generate electricity, maintain air pressure in the crew capsule and provide air for the crew to breathe. Each tank was critically important.

The launch went as planned, but as the Apollo 13 capsule was nearing the moon, Mission Control heard Commander Jim Lovell say, “Houston, we have a problem.” All pressure had been lost in one of the oxygen tanks, and the other oxygen tank was losing pressure fast. Mission Control asked Lester to estimate how much time the astronauts had before the Command Capsule’s oxygen was totally depleted and his answer was “45 minutes.” 

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Lester believes that one of the oxygen tanks may have actually exploded due to an electrical problem within the tank. He thinks that the explosion may have blown a hole in the side of the service module. Whatever the cause, the astronauts were in deep trouble and far from home.

Knowing that they had to act quickly, the crew moved from the Command Capsule into the Lunar Lander, which Lester said “had a limited amount of oxygen and battery power.” They went around the moon and headed straight back to Earth, only returning to the Command Module for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and “splashdown.” There was no available oxygen in the Command Capsule, but the crew still had some bottled oxygen that was intended for use while wearing their space suits, so the crew returned to Earth unscathed.

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Lester said, “We didn’t think it was a miracle, but a fortunate set of circumstances that allowed us to work out of the problem successfully.” However, to the layperson, it was a “close call” that closely resembled a miracle.

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James Lester, courtesy photo

Tags: #Apollo 13 #James Lester #NASA
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