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NASA Space Science

Did an Unnamed MIT Student Save Apollo 13? 258

lukehopewell1 writes "When the Apollo 13 reported an explosion on board, NASA started a marathon effort to get the three astronauts home. Several options were considered, but history tells how flight director Gene Kranz ordered a slingshot around the moon. The story stayed that way for over 40 years, until this weekend when an ex-NASA press secretary came forward and said that an unnamed MIT grad student came up with the idea to slingshot the spacecraft around the moon. NASA reportedly buried his involvement at the last minute when it was discovered that he was a long-haired, bearded hippie-type.' Now the internet has gone on the hunt to find out who this unnamed hero really is."
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Did an Unnamed MIT Student Save Apollo 13?

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  • The Book said it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:25AM (#40894419)

    The way I remember the options at the time, the slingshot was always in The Book of plans. The path to the Moon for all Apollo flights was made in a way which tossed the craft back toward Earth unless the lunar injection burn was performed behind the Moon. I wrote about the main failure modes and options way back then.

  • Re:GNU/Apollo (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:29AM (#40894457)

    heh that was the first thing I thought of too. But I just looked it up, Stallman had just entered Harvard as an undergrad (BA Physics '74). Apollo 13 was in 1970.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:33AM (#40894495)

    I call bullshit on the "hippy thought it up" story.

    A slingshot around the moon for earth return trajectory was a well known and well-studied tactic long before the first unmanned probe was ever even sent to the moon. Slingshots are an elementary part of Orbital Mechanics, the formulas are published in college textbooks of the 1950's and the topic is well-discussed even in sci-fi books of the 30's and 40's.

  • Re:The Book said it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:35AM (#40894525)

    Exactly, the whole TLI and Lunar transit process was designed to maximize the chances that the spacecraft would return to Earth by default. Nobody had to 'invent' anything. Truthfully the family of orbits that arise naturally out of the low energy Earth/Moon transfer largely have this property. Assuming your TLI burn works at all you're pretty much guaranteed to come back on flip side. Maybe someone from MIT flagged that option Kranz, but it sure wasn't some thing someone pulled out of their ass at the last minute. The question was only which option made sense, direct abort or a swing around the far side.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:36AM (#40894535)
  • by thomas.kane ( 2515292 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:40AM (#40894589)
    Every Apollo mission up to 13 that went to the moon was already on a trajectory to return it to Earth via slingshot if there was an issue (i.e. SPS engine failed to fire for LOI). Shortly after TLI for Apollo 13, a burn was made to take Apollo 13 off this trajectory in order to reach Frau Mora (their landing site) at a specific time of the lunar cycle to provide good visibility for landing. The Apollo 13 loop around decision was very probably already on the books prior to the flight for just such an eventuality, and while any number of engineers (or hippies) could have initially developed such a burn, it is the flight director's (in this case Gene Kranz and others) who would ultimately review the procedure and make the final decision to perform the burn to return them to their free-return trajectory. To say that an MIT student "saved" Apollo 13 doesn't meet with the facts of the mission.
  • by paulfjeld ( 641367 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:08AM (#40894925)
    The linked story is a great example of why you should never listen to what old men remember about great events and their (often "heroic") part in them. At no time did NASA need some graduate student from MIT to help them with a Guidance 101 type problem on Apollo 13. The difficulty was in getting the Lunar Module prepped quickly enough to make a small burn that would get them on a free return trajectory, the same type used on the previous four Apollo missions to the moon. Apollo 13 was the first to use a less safe trajectory so they could visit a more interesting place, Fra Mauro. There were always many ways out of a pickle and abort guidelines had been carefully developed for different phases of the mission. At the point of Apollo 13's explosion, a direct abort going straight back was never possible, not least because their big engine was in the now dead Service Module. Free return was the only option. There *was* a very famous "hippy" type guy at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, Don Eyles, who was responsible for much of the Lunar Module's landing program. On Apollo 14 he was instrumental in solving a problem that would have prevented that landing and he did get official recognition for it and there are pictures of him with his long hair and mustache. So that's another part of the Gizmodo crap article that is wrong. As far as the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon go, there were about three pictures taken by Aldrin with Armstrong only incidentally in the frame. The shot with the flag is definitely of Aldrin, as you can see Armstrong taking the picture in the 16mm film taken from the Lunar Module window. Aldrin, unconsciously or deliberately, never took a proper picture of his fellow crew member and commander. It was only after Apollo 12 that a photo specialist at the Houston space center suggested red armbands for the commander to distinguish him in the photos and Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 commander, never got to show them off, alas.
  • Bullshit (Score:5, Informative)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:37AM (#40895255)

    I am sorry, but this is BS as stated. The "Zond" direct return was certainly not unknown to the Apollo scientists. It's called a Zond trajectory because Zond 5 (launched 15 September 1968, returned 21 September) was the first spacecraft to execute it. (This would have been repeated with cosmonauts aboard if NASA hadn't have swapped the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9, putting men in lunar orbit in December, 1968, and thus upstaging a Soviet manned lunar flyby.) That was 2 years before Apollo 13.

    I also remember the Zond trajectory was _planned_ as a failure mode option for Apollo. I am sure there is discussion of that in the Apollo planning. I knew about it, and I was in High School at the time so I would bet serious money that Gene Kranz knew of it. I am not sure what the grad student actually contributed, but it wasn't the idea of the trajectory. (If I had to guess, I would bet he worked at the Instrumentation Lab - now Draper Labs - and calculated the delta-V needed to reenter safely, which is not negligible, but not the same as coming up with the idea.)

    Since many of the Apollo trajectory guys are still alive, if retired, I bet that someone will counter this in a day or so.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:51AM (#40895379) Homepage

    The programmer was Don Eyles, and the events described were well dramatized in the episode "For Miles and Miles" from the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon".

    They don't specifically address Eyles being stoned or drunk at the time the call came in, but he was shown crashed out on a couch, and needing a LOT of coffee ASAP in order to start working...:)

  • Re:If True: Shameful (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mike_EE_U_of_I ( 1493783 ) on Monday August 06, 2012 @12:03PM (#40895529)

    > I understand that the grad students of a few Nobel Prize winners have been pretty embittered by the lack of official recognition of their contributions.

        Having worked with just such an embittered professor, I would go as far as saying as some Nobel prizes should have been awarded to the grad students.

        I also think there is a bit of a presumption in the Nobel committee to assume work was done by the older and wiser professor. When Bardeen came up with the theory of super-conducting, a key (if not THE key) element of the theory is the concept of Cooper pairs. Cooper was a grad student working with Bardeen. How much you want to bet that Cooper came up with the idea, and Bardeen named them Cooper pairs because Bardeen wanted to make sure Cooper shared in the credit for the theory? If there were more professors like Bardeen, there would not be quite so many embittered former grad students walking around today.

        Fun fact: Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory is actually named after the Cooper who helped formulate the theory of super-conducting.

  • What a load of carp. (Score:5, Informative)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Monday August 06, 2012 @03:59PM (#40898465) Homepage

    It is just a load of carp.

    So is your entire post. No orders came from any president to 'destroy the documentation', it all went into archives where engineers and historians have happily mining it ever since. NASA has also put tons of it online in various places. Here's the results of a search for "Apollo Guidance []" on just one of them... Here's a story [] about NASA using Apollo era documentation for the Constellation program. (And here's a link to some of the experience reports [] mentioned in the story.)

    Sling shot was always the option for emergency and in fact was actually tested on Apollo 8.

    Um, no it wasn't. Apollo 8 went into orbit, it did not slingshot.

    As to using the LEM for lifeboat, that sort of was invented by the Astronauts at the time.

    No, it wasn't. The LEM Lifeboat scenario was first studied around (IIRC) 1967 and was well documented.
    Etc... etc...

    We see all sorts of rewrite of history crap going on now days and I wish people would quit listening to it.

    This from the guy who got almost every single claim verifiable against historical references wrong?

  • Re:GNU/Apollo (Score:4, Informative)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Monday August 06, 2012 @09:36PM (#40901201) Homepage

    I was too young to have known about that happening, but I remember Ronnie Raygun ordering the siesmometers on the Moon turned off.

    Well, your memory is false - the ALSEP packages were turned off in 1977. (They were dying and practically non functional anyways.)

    The only reason that they have a likely solution to the Pioneer Anomaly is that some NASA administrators disobeyed orders and handed the tapes over to the Planetary Society.

    Um, no. NASA provided the tapes for the Planetary Society because NASA didn't have the budget (or the interest) in converting the old tapes. After the conversion, it was JPL (a NASA agency) that performed the analysis.

    This sort of thing always confuses me, as I can't think of any rational reason for it.

    You're not "confused", you're "utterly and completely disconnected from reality".

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.