"Good leadership, initiative, to think outside of the box. When things go wrong, how do we repair them? Those were the three things that were absolutely necessary," said Commander Jim Lovell Jr.

By Joelle Goldstein
April 13, 2020 04:01 PM
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Apollo 13
Credit: SSPL/Getty

Fifty years ago, Commander James “Jim” Lovell Jr., command module pilot John Swigert Jr., and Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise Jr. were preparing to make the United States’ third mission to the moon.

Apollo 13 followed Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 — both of which successfully saw men land on the moon in July and November of 1969.

But just two days after the Apollo 13 took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 11, 1970, the astronauts were forced to turn around when an oxygen tank in the service module of the spacecraft exploded.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem” ultimately became the NASA mission’s notorious catchphrase, capturing the terrifying moments that the oxygen tanks exploded and the crews realized their quick thinking would be a matter of life or death.

With the assistance of their on-land engineers, the astronauts were able to orbit the moon before the spacecraft returned to Earth and safely splashed into the South Pacific Ocean.

Known around the world as a “successful failure,” the mission has become one of the most well-known in NASA’s history.

Here are five of the most inspiring quotes from their story of survival 50 years ago.

“It was plagued by bad omens and bad luck from the very beginning.” —Commander Jim Lovell Jr. to NASA

When it came to the Apollo 13 mission, the former astronaut explained to NASA that luck never seemed to be in their favor. Days before their launch, the crew was exposed to measles, prompting Ken Mattingly to be replaced by Swigert.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, the spacecraft also had a damaged liquid oxygen tank. The tank had been dropped at the factory while it was being built years prior, Lovell explained in a video.

“On the day before the flight, we filled up the tank again with liquid oxygen and it was a bomb waiting to go off,” he said.

“Everybody seemed to be moving in the right directions without being directed.” —Apollo 13 lead flight director Gene Kranz to NASA

When things went wrong on the spacecraft, the team at NASA immediately — and fearlessly — jumped into action.

Kranz noted how Mission Control came up with a way for the astronauts to clean the air and avoid inhaling carbon dioxide by attaching canisters to plastic bags, cardboard and tape.

Training personnel also brought in simulators, while crews tracked “virtually everything” the astronauts were doing, including all configuration changes in real time.

“Everybody had a sense of what needed to be done,” he recalled to NASA.

Apollo 13
Apollo 13 astronauts treading water as they await their recovery helicopter

“We could still be setting records for time in space to this day.” —Fred Haise to PEOPLE

Though the Apollo 13 crew could’ve died during the mission, Haise told PEOPLE in 1995 that he still had one regret: never getting the chance to walk on the moon.

“I was just sick to my stomach with disappointment,” he added to PEOPLE.

“They added some emotional drama to the film. I guess we weren’t interesting enough [or profane enough.]” —Fred Haise to PEOPLE

Years after the dramatic ordeal, Ron Howard vividly dramatized their fight for survival in the 1995 film Apollo 13. However, as it turns out, their perilous adventure didn’t play out on the big screen exactly how it did in real life.

“I went over all the air-to-ground transcripts. We never said a curse word for the entire flight,” Haise told PEOPLE in 1995. “None of us were so pure that we wouldn’t have cursed. We just didn’t.”

RELATED VIDEO: Tom Hanks Recalls Goofing Off with Late Costar Bill Paxton on Apollo 13

“I was most proud of being in this team that knew what they had to do and there was no doubt about it.” —Apollo 13 flight director Glynn Lunney to NASA

Looking back on their mission 50 years later, Lunney told NASA he felt nothing but pride for the crew and the way they responded to the obstacles in front of them.

“The team completely faced up to what had to be done. In this case, it was a survival challenge that we were faced with,” he explained. “So there you are, we pulled that off.”

Added Lovell: “Teamwork was necessary. Good leadership, initiative, to think outside of the box. When things go wrong, how do we repair them? Those were the three things that were absolutely necessary.”