“Houston, we have a problem”
Bernard R. Suchocki ’65 was in the mission operations control room at the Johnson Space Center on April 13, 1970, when commander Jim Lovell uttered those unforgettable words.
As an Apollo astronaut instructor stationed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Suchocki was assigned to the Apollo XIII mission operations team.
One of two oxygen tanks on board had exploded, and the remaining tank was leaking. Suchocki and his team had to react decisively to bring the three-man crew – Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert, and lunar module pilot Fred Haise – safely back to earth, a journey of 200,000 miles.
A Shamokin native, Suchocki earned a degree in physics and math from Bloomsburg State College and accepted a position as an aerospace engineer with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, where he trained Apollo astronauts. In 1973, he transferred to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to manage the development and testing of system software for the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. He later earned his law degree, leaving NASA and becoming a board-certified trial attorney.
The space race was sparked when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and burgeoned when the USSR put the first man in space in 1961. Just eight years later, in 1969, the world watched U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the lunar surface during Apollo 11, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s challenge in 1962 to put a man on the moon before the end of that decade.
Suchocki and other NASA instructors trained astronauts for Apollo missions 7 through 17, including Armstrong. They briefed prime and backup crew members on the primary guidance and navigation system, backup stabilization and control system, and operation of the command module computer. And, using a command module simulator and a lunar module simulator set up in the Kennedy Space Center’s Flight Crew Training Building, they put astronauts through each mission phase, inserting system malfunctions and critiquing performance to prepare them for any situation they might encounter.
But one scenario was not included as part of the training. That scenario — which led to the most dramatic flight in the history of the space program — was the failure of the two oxygen tanks aboard the service module.
Apollo 13 lifted off pad 39 at 1:13 p.m. on April 11, 1970. Two days later, at nearly 56 hours into the mission, the unthinkable happened. An explosion ruptured oxygen tank 2 in the service module and its debris caused tank 1 to leak and the spacecraft to tumble.
“This is when the problem became a life-threatening situation,” says Suchocki. “Without tanks 1 and 2, the service module would be completely dead: no breathable oxygen, no fuel cells, no electricity, no potable water, no propulsion and no altitude control.”
While Lovell and Haise made their way into the lunar excursion module, or LEM, to power it up, Suchocki and his colleagues hurriedly created a switch checklist for Swigert to ensure the command/service module was properly powered down. All three astronauts squeezed into the LEM, designed to support two astronauts for 49.5 hours. Now, it would have to support three astronauts for nearly twice that long.
During the following days, Suchocki coordinated with engineers and flight controllers to verify every maneuver at the simulator before it was called up to the crew. He worked with Ken Mattingly, an original member of the crew who was sidelined by exposure to measles, and other engineers to create a new reentry checklist for a disabled service module with the LEM attached.
And, finally, success. Lovell, Haise and Swigert survived near-freezing temperatures, little water and a harrowing re-entry to splash down in the South Pacific.
In recognition of their efforts, President Richard Nixon bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the Apollo XIII Mission Operations Team of about 100 people, including Suchocki.
Sharing the story
For 25 years, Suchocki has been sharing his story — and some science lessons, too — with others, mainly school groups. He estimates he’s made PowerPoint presentations to as many as 3,000 people over the years.
Among his most treasured belongings are the autographs of nearly every Apollo astronaut and items flown in space and carried to the lunar surface. He and his wife, Connie, have been married for 47 years, and each wears a wedding band carried aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft in an astronaut’s personal pouch.
Semi-retired from his Forth Worth, Texas, law firm — Suchocki, Bulland & Cummings — he and his wife have two chidlren and four grandchildren. •
Sue A. Beard is a retired newspaper editor and freelance writer based in
Fort Myers, Fla. Archivist Robert Dunkelberger’s column on BU history will return in the next issue.