Milojko Vucelić

Jun 11, 1930 - Sep 7, 2012(82)

– Houston, we have a problem! –

What actually happened to Apollo 13 and how did the Croatian engineer save the entire crew?

On that ominous April 13, the first man of the Apollo project responsible for crew safety - Milojko Vucelic, was working in the control center in Houston. The Apollo 13 flight was already routine. Man has already visited the moon many times, and during the twelfth mission a game of golf was played on it. Media attention to the US space agency has waned. Although every flight carries great risk, the control center was convinced of the success of the mission.

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At the time, no one knew that during the preparation for takeoff, due to the use of the new tank heating system, all the insulation on the electrical cables in the liquid oxygen tank had burned. No one was aware of the fact that the rocket, which had just broken through the stratosphere, was sent into space with bare electrical wires. The explosion was inevitable.

Almost two and a half days after takeoff, Vucelic asked the crew to turn on the heaters in the mentioned tanks so that the astronauts could sleep without the low pressure alarm being activated. Jack Swigart pressed the button to turn on the electric heater. Immediately afterwards, the crew heard an explosion. The oxygen tank was destroyed. At that moment, the supply of air, water and electricity to the aircraft was cut off. The three-member crew was 321,869 kilometers from Earth. Astronaut James Lowell watched the vital gas escape into the atmosphere.

The crew was in a panic. Lowel called the switchboard and shouted the now iconic sentence: - Houston, we have a problem! - The invitation was received by Vucelic. He had only four hours to figure out how to save the crew. Ground control was supposed to devise a way for the crew, using items found in the spacecraft – just some nylon, tape, and cardboard – to create a filter that would help reduce carbon dioxide levels in the cabin. A group of engineers on Earth managed to construct a blueprint of the device in just a few hours, according to which the crew made the filter. Fifty years later, Vucelic recalled how the level of carbon dioxide was already at the upper limit. If the invention didn't work, the entire crew would suffocate in space. The year 1970 would be tragic for America, but also for the whole world. Who knows how this would affect further space exploration and public opinion on the danger and utility of research missions.

For his endeavor, Vucelic was awarded the highest award the USA gives to its citizens - the Medal of Freedom, which was presented to him by then President Nixon. Modest Vucelic, who for his endeavor was never publicly celebrated as much as he should have been, repeated in his lectures the lesson he learned saving Apollo 13. He said: - You should always be prepared for surprises and react coolly and without panic. We must never lose hope because hopeless situations do not exist. –

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