This year the nation marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 13 space mission, an intended moon landing that morphed into a courageous rescue mission. And aside from witnessing history, one Timber Pines man helped make it happen.
As an engineer with Grumman Aerospace in New York, Donald Parsons helped to cultivate a support module for NASA’s Apollo 13 mission. Called the Lunar Module (also known as the Aquarius), the unit was attached to the Command Module of the main spacecraft (known as the Odyssey) and was intended to transport two astronauts to the surface of the moon.
“We were very excited by the challenge,” said Parsons. “We did our research. We did our homework.”
Parsons and other project engineers also got to know the trio of astronauts set to participate in this mission: Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. Swigert served as a late replacement for Ken Mattingly, grounded after his exposure to rubella.
And they watched with pride as the Apollo 13 launched April 11, 1970, from the Kennedy Space Center.
“They were excellent people,” said Parsons. “Pilots with the right stuff, as they say, who hopped on a powerful rocket bound for the moon.”
Satisfied with a job well done, Parsons did what many Americans typically do this time of year.
“I went home and did my taxes,” he revealed.
It was then that he received the phone call that would change everything; the notification that something had gone seriously wrong with the Apollo 13 mission–as conveyed by flight commander Jim Lovell’s classic message to Mission Control Center in Houston.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
The problem was that an oxygen tank located in the Odyssey’s service module had exploded. Suddenly the module could not supply the oxygen and power needed to complete the mission.
So now it was no longer a matter of getting the crew to the moon. It was a matter of getting them home, safe and alive.
“I told my wife, ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you’,” said Parsons. “And I went to Houston.”
As part of the Apollo 13 rescue mission, Parsons was part of the crew tasked with transforming the Lunar Module into a rescue boat; one that could support three astronauts for a period of four days.
“The LM was not designed for this purpose,” said Parsons. “But we had to make it work. We had to get them home.”
“As we were famously told back then by our team leader,” he recalls. “Failure was not an option.”
For the next few days, the rescue crew had to rewrite procedures and create whole new calibrations; ones that enabled the crew to transfer to the newly empowered and recalibrated Lunar Module, where they lived with little heat, water and oxygen as they rounded the moon and navigated the way home.
Finally they were able to reboard the Command Module, making a successful splashdown landing April 17 in the Pacific Ocean.
“We got them back,” said Parsons. “It was such a wonderful relief–all of the pressure, all of the anxiety, was replaced by good feelings. We were euphoric.”
In 1995, the story of Apollo 13 was produced as a motion picture directed by Ron Howard, that starred Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Kathleen Quinlan and Gary Sinise. Nominated for 58 film awards, including a Best Picture Academy Award, the film was set to be re-released to theaters this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission.
Then another serious problem arose; as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters closed and the re-release event was postponed.
As the nation stands together in the face of another threat to lives and spirits, this local hero has some sound advice.
“When push comes to shove,” he said. “Our nation will be successful. We will solve this problem.”
Because it’s just as true now as it was 50 years ago: Failure is not an option.