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Tag: History and Background

Digital Competition

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

The real space rescue missions of history.


by Nadiya Ivahnenko, Galactic Challenge Volunteer 


Monday, April 13th 1970

7.07 pm PST

56 hours into a mission, an explosion begins to shake a rocket headed for the moon. 205, 000 miles away alarm lights begin to flash at mission control on earth. Oxygen tank 2 has exploded, a whole side of the spacecraft is missing and three men are on board a space vessel that is seconds away from losing all power.

The Apollo 13 mission would mark the third manned landing on the moon, ultimately arriving at the bright plains of the Fra Mauro lunar highlands. The landing site promised to be dangerous with unpredictable hills, but with a wealth of scientific information from the remains of one of the largest craters discovered within the solar system; looking out of your window at night, you can see it for yourself as the darkest spot on the Moon! (See left)

April 11th 11.13 am

The crew of Apollo 13 climbed onto the Saturn V Rocket at Florida’s Kennedy Space Station. Meanwhile dozens of scientists, engineers and technicians stand by at mission control at Houston, Texas in the US, prepared to monitor the millions of moving parts on board.  After lift-off the astronauts entered Earth’s atmosphere, bracing themselves as the engines ignited and roared to life, shaking the ground around it. The first stage is successful and soon the rocket hurtles through the sound barrier – travelling faster than the speed of sound!

Strapped into their seats the astronauts furiously shake with the ship around them, as they ‘pogo’ into space. Suddenly the first alarm starts to ring as the centre engine fails – the first unexpected danger on their trip. Nonetheless, the team has planned for this and the computer onboard detects the failure, quickly powering up the remaining engines to recover.

The astronauts continue their course and are ready for a three-day journey to the Moon.

In the meantime, the astronauts wait, monitor the ship, and broadcast on TV every evening, showing the world as they travel deeper into space. Unknown to anyone, damage had emerged on the mission’s oxygen tank during testing, waiting for an ultimate disaster. See the Apollo 13 spaceship below, made up of service and command modules, alongside a lunar lander.

Two days after leaving Cape Canaveral, the crew is instructed to turn on the fans in the oxygen tank as part of a routine procedure, stirring the super-cold liquid oxygen inside. A bang rings out through the ship.

The astronauts gather in the command module to try and discover the cause of the explosion. The commander, Jim Lovell, radios mission control delivering a daunting message:

“Houston, we have a problem”.

Seconds later the plumes of oxygen are escaping into space and the fuel cells have failed causing power onboard to drop rapidly. Immediately both the crew on earth and in space are in a race against time, working against the odds to ensure the astronauts return safely. Across the world, people listen in on radio and TV news broadcasts as the events of the rescue mission unfold.

The mission is aborted and the crew move into the service module originally intended to land them on the Moon, now they must use it as a lifeboat. New computer code is drafted, radioed to the crew and punched into the onboard computer. For four minutes and 23 seconds the lunar lander’s engines fire and the crew manoeuvre around the moon, assisted by its gravity, and Apollo 13 has successfully begun its journey home.

However, the two-person lunar lander soon is unable to provide clean air for the three astronauts tightly squeezed on board. Using only the materials onboard the lander, an air hose from a spacesuit is cut and reattached to canisters onboard allowing breathable air to re-enter the lander.

Slowly earth reappeared in the windows of the ship. As they travelled more problems emerged: the engine had to be refired in bursts so the lander would not run out of fuel and miss the earth by 2,500 miles; a precise pressure had to be calculated to separate the astronauts from the unused modules of the ship; and lastly the astronauts needed to parachute into waves of the South Pacific Ocean.

At the time of the first explosion, there was a 10% chance that the mission would return. Still the mission persevered, and finally through creativity and improvisation the crew of Apollo 13 returned home. Though the mission failed in its original goal, Apollo 13 demonstrated the lengths that human teamwork could achieve. Still today, every mission into space carries the risk of no return, as well as a team of people waiting for the unexpected. Since Apollo 13, many astronauts have had to encounter near-disasters and many have been prepared to once again radio back the same message as Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem”.

The crew of Apollo 13, after landing back on Earth


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Digital Competition

Halley’s Comet – A Bad Sign for Difficult Times?

Halley’s Comet has been seen throughout history as a warning of bad things to come – read on to find out about its history, science, and the challenges you might face living there!


Written by James Hayes, Galactic Challenge Volunteer 

Illustrated by Saffron Zainchkovskaya, Galactic Challenge Volunteer 


Imagine you’re living in the Year 1066 AD. William the Conqueror is invading Britain and suddenly, every night, there is a strange bright light in the sky with a long, brilliant tail. It moves slowly across the sky, lasting for a few months, and as it does, lots is changing in your life. You’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe this alien light had something to do with it all! Those at the time certainly did, with the Comet even depicted on the famous Bayeux Tapestry (see above).

For thousands of years, ancient civilisations would see this light in the sky and wonder just what it was, but it wasn’t until 1705 that an Astronomer named Edmond Halley would begin to understand just what it was. Edmond realised that the sightings of a comet every 75 years were not coincidences, but they were actually the same comet returning periodically, and in 1705 he predicted when it would return again. Halley said the comet would reappear in 1758 and indeed it did! Halley’s Comet is the only known comet with an orbit that allows it to appear in the night sky twice in a human lifetime, and we know that the next time it appears will be in June 2061.

This is where lots of science can take place – we have 40 years to plan all sorts of exciting experiments on the comet before it returns and lots of questions to answer. One question is about its orbit as it actually orbits in the opposite direction to all of the planets! The planets also orbit in circles around the sun, but Halley’s Comet has what is known as an “elliptical” orbit, meaning its orbit looks like a circle that has been squished. This is quite unique for objects in our solar system, and means that the comet gets very close to Earth but also moves away from it very quickly (as seen below).This could be a problem if something goes wrong on a mission to the Comet, as there would only be a limited amount of time for a rescue operation – in the year 2061, your Space Rescue Organisation is able to make the journey in two months, but time is a precious resource! 

The comet itself is about 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, in the shape of a peanut. It is made mainly of ice, with small amounts of carbon, methane, and ammonia. As Halley nears the sun, many of these elements on the surface begin to turn into gases, creating the tail, or “comal”, which gives it its distinctive appearance. Because of its small size, any astronauts on the surface will effectively be in zero gravity – creating all sorts of opportunities for science and fun, but also creating problems you will have to solve. 

Halley’s Comet is a fascinating place, where we can discover secrets of our solar system, but it has the potential to be very dangerous. Perhaps those ancient civilisations that viewed it as a warning were on to something after all… 


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