Last July (and I can hear you thinking “at least he’s only going back nine months this time!” – quite mistakenly as it happens.) I wrote of my perception of the first moon landing by the gallant crew of Apollo 11 forty years earlier.
Today I am reminded that it is now forty years since the disastrous but even more gallant Apollo 13 mission – the one that nearly didn’t come back.
For those that believe in such omens the lift-off time of a couple of minutes before 1.15pm local time (13.13 in case you missed the reference) was probably not the best moment to launch something designated “Apollo 13” but they were nearly fifty six hours into the mission when the explosion in the Oxygen tank happened.
And THAT, by my reckoning, would have been just after 9pm local time on Monday 13th April 1970! Still, at least it wasn’t a Friday – that would have been REALLY unlucky!
The time difference between the UK and the eastern USA meant that I would have heard about it on the early Tuesday morning News broadcasts before departing for my job as a filing clerk in Ipswich 3rd District Tax Office and I can still recall the horrible feeling that these guys weren’t going to make it and were going to die horribly in the full glare of the world’s media.
Furthermore I thought I could see, whatever the outcome of their efforts, that THAT would be the end of humanity’s venture into space. And I actually feared that possibility more than the tragic loss of three men in terrible circumstances.
I was, however, deeply concerned about their fate and took the extremely unusual step of taking my radio (plus earphone – I think you could still be executed for listening to a radio in the workplace in those days!) into work. I did not think that this would be a problem as I worked out in the filing room where my superiors did not normally venture but I overlooked ONE thing!
Tuesday 14th April 1970 was Budget Day in the UK that year and THAT was the one day of the year that a radio was regarded as essential in the Tax Office!
The Personal Tax allowances always changed as, sometimes, did the rate of tax. We DID get printed handouts from the Treasury detailing the effects of these changes but they didn’t get to us until next morning and there was always at least one nutter who would turn up at the enquiry counter just before it closed at 4pm demanding to know what the changes were and EXACTLY how they affected him.
If we couldn’t make a good effort to tell him, he would write to the Chief Inspector of Taxes accusing us of gross incompetence!
Incidentally we knew that because he sent them to our own address and our District Inspector would throw them away!
Unfortunately, this year the guy who normally brought his radio in was on leave and one of my fellow clerks blurted out that I had mine with me! My colleagues, therefore demanded that I make mine available.
Now I don’t remember exactly what was on which station but the Budget speech, then as now, was carried live while one of the other BBC stations was doing extensive hourly bulletins on the plight of Apollo 13.
My fellow Inland Revenue outcasts therefore became somewhat annoyed when I kept switching over from the Budget periodically to get the latest from Mission Control which did not interest them AT ALL!
I was (for a 17 year old) quite firm about it though. It was MY radio and I had brought it in for a purpose that was NOT the Budget and they would have to humour me or I would take it away completely! They capitulated and managed to get what they had missed from the summaries given by the BBC from time to time – so everyone was happy!
I’m not going to tell the tale of Apollo 13 and its crew’s survival because I’m sure you’ve all seen the film and know how they scraped up an air purification system from spacesuit parts and duct tape.
As we know they got back safely and the USA resumed taking a keen interest in something that had been becoming a bit mundane to the TV audiences.
I would however like to pass on one unusual thing that I only noticed for the first time today.
I was reading an account of the Apollo 13 mission contained in a book that I have owned for many years now – “The Invasion of the Moon 1957 -70” by Peter Ryan – in which he relates the story of the German Measles problem.
If you didn’t know already the original crew were exposed to German measles and the Command Module pilot, Thomas Mattingly, did not show immunity. He was therefore grounded and his place taken by his backup, John Swigert at twenty four hours notice.
Now what I DIDN’T know was that Swigert’s speciality was “responses to malfunctions in the Command and Service Modules” which was , of course, exactly where the malfunction occurred!
Wasn’t THAT lucky?
I make a present of that knowledge to the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists out there – in the hope that they a) attempt to make something of it that I can laugh at; and b) suffer a total mental breakdown while trying to integrate what they THINK I’m suggesting with their belief that none of it happened at all!
PS. The title of this piece is what Jim Lovell ACTUALLY said! When asked by Mission Control to repeat he THEN said “Houston, we’ve HAD a problem”. I’ve got a transcript of it, so there!