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.


Image: Dave Young, CC2.0

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    You know what? that suck balls, but I am not even shocked about this, it's kind of expected nowadays that that the asshats in charge will act like, well... asshats...!!

      "nowaday"!? This was in 1970, dude.

      And this story is being released NOW, stupid...!!

        released now, but the situation that you are referring to happened in 1970.

          Yes, but he said "it's kind of EXPECTED nowadays".

          He is rightfully mentioning a social construction of expectations on the "asshats in charge" in the chronological context of "nowadays".

          Now don't you dare try to tell me that people only made assumptions about "asshats in charge" in the 1970s.

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Kind of odd that neither Armstrong or Aldrin thought it important to correct this factiod about the flag in the last 43 years?

      Armstrong is immortalised with the phrase "One small step...", maybe he thinks it's fair for Aldrin to be "remembered" in the photograph?

        I'd have to agree. They all went to the moon, let Aldrin have something

          I went to the moon and all I got was this lousy photo!

            For some reason an image of ALien...

            "I went to LV426 and all I got was this lousy chestburster..."

          Never forget Aldrin spoke the first words on landing on the moon.

    You'll need to re-read the second quote, it specifically says that most people think that it wasn't Neil Armstrong, but that it definitely was.

    Get real. There was no viable alternative other than using the Moon's gravity. Making the decision was Kranz's responsibility, but I don't doubt that it was always the recovery plan if something went wrong. Sheesh.

    I'm not shocked either. Trying to cover things up all the time when most of the time they don't have a clue.

    The odds could not have been insurmoutable because they were surmounted!

    Nice! Take's balls to tell the truth... Now have even more hugerer balls and tell us what movie studio the moon landing was shot in!

    Last Comment in the article....

    "Like this one about how the iconic photo of Neil Armstrong next to the American flag on the moon isn’t actually Neil Armstrong:"
    Should Read: "Like this one about how the iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin next to the American flag on the moon isn’t actually Buzz Aldrin:"....

    The comment below details that it was a confusion as to who was carrying the camera, and it ended that Aldrin carried the camera.. "So that is Armstrong by the flag, not Aldrin."

      Surely these things couldn't have been that hard to keep track of, since everyone was just standing around on a Hollywood backlot through the whole thing, anyway.

    Yeah, or not.

    NASA already knew about slingshot trajectories, of course. In fact, missions were usually launched on a free-return path, just in case, until the time came for lunar orbital insertion. In Apollo 13's case, all they needed to do was extend that a little to speed up the return trip.

    Alternate headline "Old NASA official successfully trolls entire internet."

    Yeah, NASA understood enough about orbital mechanics to plan multiple missions to the moon, but forgot it all as soon as there was a problem.

    no, just no...

      thank you

    "Don't thank me, thank the moon's gravitational pull!"

    Nice One McGarnical!!

    I think someone is pulling someone else's leg. The early Apollo missions were launched on a free return trajectory meaning that they would swing around the moon and back to earth if the engine wasn't used to put the craft into lunar orbit. It is true that Apollo 13 deviated from this (needed as they were landing on the moon in a location that did not suit the free return path). But when the accident happened Nasa already were aware of 2 main options. Direct Abort - was firing the main engine and trying to return immediatley - very risky - or option 2 - get back on the return path and take the safer, slower option. Keeping the astronauts alive longer became the challenge then.

    Poppycock. The "free return trajectory" was already a part of the mission plan if a return-to-earth abort became necessary, had been since Apollo 8, had been since mission planning for moon missions were first considered. The idea that some MIT kid came up with it DURING the A13 mission is laughable. It's possible that the kid rewrote some code tailoring the software to the mission at hand, but the rest is ridiculous. There's a reason many within NASA have always looked at the PR folks with a jaundiced eye.

    I think both of these stories are a crock: the free-return trajectory was well-known before Apollo 13 since all prior Apollo moon missions used that trajectory by default in case there was a problem. And the possession of the camera on Apollo 11 is well-covered in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Aldrin had the camera, but only briefly, and only took one or two (rather poor) photos of Armstrong.

    I am not sure how the discredit is attributed to Kranz here. He was the FD for the mission. He was presented with two options, Direct Abort or Free Return Trajectory. He made a choice between the two. The fact that a MIT articulated FRT is awesome, and should be brought up, if it is true. My point is that the story says "[f]light Director Gene Kranz reportedly made the decision to slingshot around the moon in a bid to get the astronauts home," somehow insinuating a mistake on his part. Kranz made the decision. He rightly gets credit for making the decision. I don't remember anywhere in the history of the flight anyone saying it was Kranz's idea. He was working with the facts at hand.

    my uncle was a close friend to all at jpl, he was a former editor of aerospace weekly, and was often inside mission control in critical moments. he called me from jpl within 3 minutes of the shuttle's explosion saying "you know what nasa stands for? need another seven astronauts"

    A researcher at NASA John Glenn Research Center is calling this bogus:

    "While I always love to hear stories where MIT students are the heroes, I find this story a little odd. The lunar-swingby return trajectory was always the abort option. So I'm not sure what this article is implying-- a MIT student said "say, why doesn't NASA implement their backup plan?" and Gene Kranz said "the backup plan! That's it! We never would have thought of that!" ?"

    So who is in the photo? The text before the quote says it isn't Neil Armstrong. The quote itself says, "So that is armstrong by the flag, not Aldrin." Huh?

    Short answer: This did not happen. I don't doubt the fascinating account by the 97 year-old man (which I followed on Reddit while it was unfolding), I just suspect he was confusing details of Apollo 13 and another incident--my guess it was the LEM computer emergency reprogramming required during Lunar descent on Apollo 14 (which did require some MIT help). The "lunar slingshot" method was already on the books as an emergency return method well before Apollo 13 even took off.

      I had a grandfather who, towards the end of his life, went on and on about his pioneering work in science and how he once got a medal from the President. It was all a complete fantasy. I expect this kind of story will be more common as the boomers age.

    Neither of these stories is remotely true. I co-authored the book "Apollo 13" in 1994 and was involved in the production of the movie. I spent two years deep in the NASA archives and interviewed all of the surviving principals.

    A slingshot return (called the free-return trajectory) was built into the first four flights to the moon--Apollos 8, 10, 11 and 12--in the event that the service module engine failed. Apollo 13, ironically, was the first one to deviate from the plan, firing its engine to adjust its course on the way out in order to target the lunar landing site precisely. This still would have permitted a disabled ship to whip around the back of the moon and head home, but it would have missed the Earth. It hardly took an MIT student's brainstorm to come up with a way to tweak the trajectory back into line, however. Firing the engine (in this case the LEM's) is the way all trajectories are adjusted. It amounts to little more than stepping on the gas and turning the steering wheel. Plus, the item you cite never mentions who this mysterious NASA source is. I interviewed the key folks in the public affairs office when I was reporting the book and trust me, none of them were carrying some decades-old secret. Also, none of them would have used the term "moonshot" as the supposed source in this story does.

    As for the Armstrong-Aldrin picture thing: nonsense too. I know both men; it is established historical fact, acknowledged by the only two people in a position to know, that the only photograph of Armstrong on the moon was the reflection of him in Aldrin's helmet in the iconic image of Aldrin with his left arm bent. Armstrong held the camera and did all of the photographing.

    Please don't traffic in Internet rumors. It makes us all less smart and less trusting.

    --Jeffrey Kluger

    Well, you have to expect some fogginess when you ask a 97 year old his reflections on history.

    Realy, people.

    To add some humor to the Apollo 13 incident... there is a story that after the safe return of the Astronauts, Grumman (the builders of the Lunar Module) sent North American (the builders of the command module) a bill for towing the command module back from the moon. If true, someone had a good sense of humor.

    "...isn’t actually Neil Armstrong:.."
    "...So that is Armstrong by the flag, not Aldrin."

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