HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — For a few days in April 1970, the world's attention was riveted on Apollo 13 and the worst in-flight crisis to that point in the history of the space program.
An oxygen tank in the service module had exploded, forcing NASA to abort the third planned moon landing and raising grave concern about whether astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise could safely return to Earth.
They had to hurriedly power down the command module Odyssey to preserve its rapidly draining batteries for the re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and turn the lunar excursion module Aquarius into a lifeboat for the four days it would take to circle the moon and return to Earth.
Haise, who will be among eight former astronauts and two other special guests in Hutchinson on Saturday for the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center's Fly Around Dine Around fundraising event, said that he was worried until they got the LEM powered up and realized that it wasn't damaged, The Hutchinson News (http://bit.ly/1anUj65 ) reported.
"That was the only other life support and communications we had," he said.
Then after a course correction to position their spacecraft to use the moon's gravity to slingshot them back toward Earth and calculating the available consumables remaining on board, "we knew we'd get back to attempt a re-entry. The question was what the command module would be like when we got back after four days and how it would perform."
Two hurdles remained, however. The first was the lithium hydroxide needed to remove carbon dioxide from the air they breathed. The lunar module's system had been designed to support two astronauts for a day and a half on the moon, not three astronauts for four days.
The command module had plenty of cartridges, but they were of a different shape and didn't fit the LEM's purification system. Technicians on the ground improvised a way to join the command module's cube-shaped cartridges to the cylindrical canister sockets, ensuring that they would have enough oxygen to get home.
Astronauts and technicians on the ground also invented a procedure for powering the command module back up before re-entry, using the few amps remaining in the batteries.
But the drama wasn't over. Usually during re-entry there was a four-minute communications blackout caused by ionization of the air around the command module. In Apollo 13's case, the blackout lasted nearly six minutes, causing those on the ground to worry that the shield that prevented the command module from burning up in re-entry had been damaged.
While those watching on television on Earth worried as the blackout lengthened, Haise said he had no inkling of the concern until after they had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
"During entry we were on our own," he said. "Mission control had no role. So I wasn't paying any attention to when we were supposed to be out of the blackout. When we came out, we would get a signal from mission control."
Apollo 13 turned out to be Haise's one chance to fly in space.
Later he piloted the first atmospheric test flight of the unpowered space shuttle Enterprise, released from the back of a 747 jetliner to test the shuttle's maneuvering and landing ability.
"Frankly the high point of my professional career as a test pilot and an astronaut was the first time we released the Enterprise off a 747," Haise said. "It was a new vehicle. It was not as complex as the orbiter. But it was crucial. There was no backup for Enterprise. With the change of administrations from Nixon to Carter — Carter wasn't too interested in the space program — if there had been an accident it may have been the end for the shuttle program before it ever got underway. ... I felt good about being part of that."
Haise was scheduled to go back into space as commander of one of the early shuttle missions to Skylab, the first U.S. space station. But when Skylab fell from orbit before the shuttle program got off the ground, Haise wasn't interested in the new mission and decided to retire from NASA.
Since then he has remained involved in the space program, working as an executive for Grumman Aerospace, Northrop Grumman and a couple of nonprofit organizations involved in space memorials and space education.
Haise, who will be 80 in November, said that if he had the chance he'd go back into space "if it was something meaningful, if they really need senior citizen data of some kind."
"But it would be hard to play a meaningful role," he said. "It's a young man's game and it would be hard to take a valid seat from a young man. You get to a point where you have to admit you're getting old."
Since the last shuttle mission in July 2011, the United States hasn't had a manned space vehicle and has been hitching rides to the space station on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
"I'm continually worried about the future of the space program," Haise said. "I have been since Apollo."
The Cold War rivalry with the Russians helped fuel the space program in the 1960s. But funding since then has always been "touch and go," Haise said, noting that the space station program was approved by just one vote in the House of Representatives in 1987.
Today, Haise said, his hopes rest with commercial space ventures.
"I hope one of the commercial guys survives and establishes a business and can provide us at least the capability of supporting the space station," he said.
Big missions, like lunar landings, are unlikely for the foreseeable future. What made it possible in the 1960s was the rivalry with the Russians, the fact that there weren't other big drains on the national treasury (the Vietnam War hadn't ramped up when President Kennedy set the goal of landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s) and the fact that the United States had the technology to pull it off.
"We can say we want to go to the next star tomorrow," Haise said, "but it's not going to happen because we don't have the technology."
In Hutchinson on Saturday, Haise will get another look at the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey, which the Cosmosphere restored and has on display. He has been here a couple of times previously.
"The last time they opened up the capsule and took the cover off so Jim Lovell and I could look inside our old buddy," Haise said. "It's like seeing an old friend."
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Hutchinson News.