NASA Office of Logic Design

NASA Office of Logic Design

A scientific study of the problems of digital engineering for space flight systems,
with a view to their practical solution.


2004 MAPLD International Conference

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
Washington, D.C.

September 8-10, 2004

Apollo 13 Mishap

"There's one whole side of that spacecraft missing", Jim Lovell said as the Apollo 13 astronauts got their first view of the damage that had been caused by the explosion.

MISHAP DATE: April 13, 1970.

FAILURE AND MAIN CONTRIBUTING FACTOR

The Apollo 13 malfunction was caused by an explosion and rupture of oxygen tank no. 2 in the service module.  The explosion ruptured a line or damaged a valve in the no. 1 oxygen tank, causing it to lose oxygen rapidly. The service module bay no.4 cover was blown off. All oxygen stores were lost within about 3 hours, along with loss of water, electrical power, and use of the propulsion system.

SUMMARY

The oxygen tanks had originally been designed to run off the 28 volt DC power of the command and service modules. However, the tanks were redesigned to also run off the 65 volt DC ground power at Kennedy Space Center. All components were upgraded to accept 65 volts except the heater thermostatic switches, which were overlooked. These switches were designed to open and turn off the heater when the tank temperature reached 80 degrees F. (Normal temperatures in the tank were -300 to -100 F.)

During pre-flight testing, tank no. 2 showed anomalies and would not empty correctly, possibly due to the fill line damaged during a lifting operation on Apollo 10. (On the ground, the tanks were emptied by forcing oxygen gas into the tank and forcing the liquid oxygen out, in space there was no need to empty the tanks.) The heaters in the tanks were normally used for very short periods to heat the interior slightly, increasing the pressure to keep the oxygen flowing. It was decided to use the heater to "boil off" the excess oxygen, requiring 8 hours of 65 volt DC power. This probably damaged the thermostatically controlled switches on the heater, designed for only 28 volts. It is believed the switches welded shut, allowing the temperature within the tank to rise to over 1000 degrees F. The gauges measuring the temperature inside the tank were designed to measure only to 80 F, so the extreme heating was not noticed. The high temperature emptied the tank, but also resulted in serious damage to the teflon insulation on the electrical wires to the power fans within the tank.

Apollo 13 Review Board (Cortright Commission)

Return to 2004 MAPLD Seminar: Aerospace Mishaps and Lessons Learned


Home - NASA Office of Logic Design
Last Revised: February 03, 2010
Digital Engineering Institute
Web Grunt: Richard Katz
NACA Seal