Apollo 11 at 50: Dangers of the Mission

Earth and Moon, photographed during the Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. Image: NASA

Earth and Moon, photographed during the Apollo 11 mission, July 1969. Image: NASA

50 years ago today, the crew of Apollo 11 were almost at the Moon with their mission progressing smoothly. But what might have gone wrong?

10 years ago on downthetubes, Jeremy Briggs wrote a 40th anniversary day-by-day celebration series of articles marking the Apollo 11 mission, featuring contemporary British comics and illustrations – and you can read his 19th July 1969 entry here, which takes a look at some of the dangers inherent to the mission.

While the Apollo 11 mission faced potential disaster on more than one occasion, recently recounted in TV documentaries such as 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, still available on BBC iPlayer, one moon mission that did go wrong was Apollo 13, graphically illustrated by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, who painted numerous space artworks on his return to Earth, who died earlier this year.

"Houston, We Have a Problem" painted by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean

“Houston, We Have a Problem” painted by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean

His painting, “Houston, We Have a Problem”, was created to celebrate the Apollo 13 film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton and Gary Sinise.

“The movie tells the remarkable and inspiring story of how astronauts deep in space and engineers and scientists on planet Earth worked together to chance an almost fatal tragedy into a triumph of human skill and spirit,” noted Bean, describing his artwork.

“The explosion of oxygen tank number two was the defining moment in the voyage of Apollo 13. This would begin some of America’s finest hours in space flight.

Capstone Press released "The Apollo 13 Mission (Graphic History)" by Donald B. Lemke, illustrated by Keith Tucker, in 2006

Capstone Press released “The Apollo 13 Mission (Graphic History)” by Donald B. Lemke, illustrated by Keith Tucker, in 2006

“Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise thought that having two liquid oxygen tanks aboard provided satisfactory system redundancy. If one failed the other had a sufficient supply to get safely home. An explosion that tore away piping from both tanks was not considered possible. Unfortunately, it happened that way anyway.

“I have painted the explosion in space as a number of individually distinct particles streaming away from tank number two. The particles are liquid oxygen and vapourised tank and wiring and insulation materials, everything near the point of detonation. I do not believe an explosive cloud forms in the vacuum of space as it does on Earth because everything I saw move in space moved in a straight line. For example, there was no dirt cloud as we landed on the Moon, just small pieces of dirt speeding away radially from the rocket engine exhaust.”


NASA: Apollo 11 in Real Time, 50 Years Later

The Space Race from Audible on Amazon (Affiliate Link)

• “Moon Landing 40th Anniversary: A Comics Celebration” Gallery on Flickr

The Race into Space Tea Cards – available from the London Cigarette Card Company

The Official Web Site of Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean

NASA: Frequently Asked Questions about Apollo

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The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.

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