Science

NASA Had No Idea How To Save Apollo 13, But An MIT Student Reportedly Did

Either via movies, news reports or by word of mouth, you’ve likely heard of the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission. Next to Apollo 11, it’s one of NASA’s proudest achievements — returning three men to Earth against insurmountable odds. That return was only possible thanks to the bright idea of a NASA scientist who claimed that slingshotting the craft around the moon was the only way back. Now, a former NASA staffer has revealed that it wasn’t NASA’s idea at all, and the internet is on a quest to find who it was.

The bold claim that NASA didn’t actually save Apollo 13 came from the space agency’s ex-deputy chief of media relations during the time of the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. He’s 97 years old now and like the good sport he is, took part in a Reddit ask me anything with the aid of his grandson.

He was asked pretty early on in the caper about Apollo 13, and whether or not he thought the crew would make it back to Earth. He said he had no hope for the crew’s survival, but that didn’t stop him and everyone else at NASA from staying awake for 7 days straight to try to bring the astronauts home.

That was before he dropped this bombshell:

All the engineers and everybody else at NASA in Houston were working hard at recovering the moonshot, and they were in real trouble, weren’t sure they could get it back. They got a phone call from a grad student at MIT who said he knew how to get them back. They put engineers on it, tested it out, by God it worked. Slingshotting them around the moon. They successfully did. They wanted to present the grad student to the President and the public, but they found him and he was a real hippy type — long hair and facial hair. NASA was straight-laced, and this was different than they expected, so they withdrew the invitation to the student. I think that is a disgrace.

According to the grandson who was relaying the answers, the 97-year old had been keeping this secret his whole life based on how hard the story was to tell. NASA apparently made a concerted effort to bury the grad student’s involvement in the mission.

History recounts the decision to slingshot around the moon as one that was weighed against what’s known as a “direct abort”. That is, burning every last drop of fuel in the craft to put it into an about face and return it to Earth. Flight Director Gene Kranz reportedly made the decision to slingshot around the moon in a bid to get the astronauts home. No grad student has yet been mentioned in the pages of history.

Redditors called on the ex-NASA member to right the wrong by outing the name of the grad student, but got no response. As a result, the community is now on the hunt for the name of the student.

I really recommend you go and read this ex-NASA guy’s answers. He’s one of those old, wizened gents with a million stories to tell. Like this one about how the iconic photo of Neil Armstrong next to the American flag on the moon isn’t actually Neil Armstrong:

When they got to the moon, Armstrong was the first one on the moon, and Aldrin passed the camera down to Armstrong. When we got pictures back at 4 o’clock in the morning, everybody wanted them for the newspapers and magazines. I had a whole photographic lab standing by to prepare the stuff for issuance. Problem was, I didn’t know who was who because everybody looked the same in the space suits. But I figured Aldrin passed the camera to Armstrong, so the famous picture of the astronaut by the flag, I figured had to be Aldrin. So that’s who I said it was. When Aldrin came back, he told me no, first thing Armstrong did was pass the camera back to me. So that is Armstrong by the flag, not Aldrin. We sent out corrections to everyone, of course, and some people printed the corrections, but most people and newspapers still think it’s Aldrin. I suggested that after that they have some distinguishing marks, so since then the mission commander has a stripe on his sleeve. But I always feel like that was my contribution to screwing up history.

[Reddit]

Image: Dave Young, CC2.0


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