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Apollo 11 was a tribute to modern technology: No foul ups; no glitches. Man had accomplished the impossible without a hitch. In fact Apollo missions 11 and 12 were so error-free they seemed almost routine. The world resumed breathing. The television ratings for moonwalks began to decline. When Apollo 13 lifted off from the Kennedy Launch Center, the mood of anxious anticipation had given way to a sense of smug certainty. We’ve done this before, and we will do it again.

On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 entered earth orbit, shed the remnants of its Saturn 5 booster rocket, and shot away toward its silent silver destination. Everything was "A-O-K."

Days after the launch, an unscheduled, understated message crackled over the Mission Control loudspeakers. The calm voice of flight commander James Lovell observed matter-of-factly, "Houston … We’ve got a problem."

And what a problem it was. An oxygen tank on the outside of the service module had ruptured, severely damaging the craft. The bad news poured in. First, the moon mission itself was scrubbed. Apollo 13 would have to fire its retro-rockets and return to earth. As the damage was surveyed, it became apparent that the command module could not supply the energy and air to sustain the three crew members through re-entry. They would have to climb into the lunar lander and use its supplies to survive.

Then, the most sobering development of all. Because of the radically altered course back to earth, Apollo 13’s return home would be limited to a very precise and narrow path. Missing the painfully small re-entry window meant catastrophe. If the craft came in too steeply, it would incinerate like a falling star. If the angle of attack was too high, the command module would skip off the atmosphere like a smooth stone on a calm lake. There would not be enough fuel or oxygen for a second chance.

What would you have done in James Lovell’s shoes? In Houston, scores of the brightest and best scientific minds were hard at work calculating, planning, anticipating every contingency. More than guess work, hunches, and the old college try were required to bring the crippled craft home. But, on the other...

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