April 17, 1970 — The lunar and service modules had been jettisoned between Fiji and New Zealand; the three crew of Apollo 13 were barreling back to earth in the command module. After a mission rife with uncertainty, malfunction and extreme danger, the extended communications blackout during reentry had many on edge. Still, the three parachutes successfully deployed and brought the astronauts down safely in the south Pacific Ocean. There, they would be picked up by the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship that has since been decommissioned.

Just under six days earlier, the crew had embarked upon a mission to land on the moon. They blasted off from Cape Canaveral, FL, and almost 56 hours into the mission the astronauts would begin to encounter some serious problems. One of the oxygen tanks exploded inside Apollo 13, which they described as a “pretty large bang.” They lost two fuel cells as the cells were dependent on that oxygen supply. These problems began to cascade into other, more complex problems and things were growing worse by the minute.

“Okay, Houston, — I believe we’ve had a problem here.” The phrase became famous as the crew had no choice but to cut their losses, cancel the moon mission and focus all their faculties on getting home alive.

The crew of Apollo 13 photographed the Moon from their Lunar Module “life boat” as they passed by it. The shut-down Command Module is visible out the overhead rendezvous window. | Wikimedia Commons

The crew had to improvise — in short, they were able to use the moon’s gravity to swing around and propel them back home. This brought them incredibly close to their destination, and yet they were unable to land there. Because of their route, called a “free-return trajectory,” and the distance of the moon from the earth at the time, the astronauts of Apollo 13 hold the record of the greatest distance human beings have been from the earth.