An Amazing Correlation: The Voyages of Christopher Columbus and Apollo 13

 Jerry Woodfill, Apollo 13 Mission Warning System Engineer



An invitation from the Houston Power Squadron, a club of nautical enthusiasts, led to these correlations, or, perhaps, a better term would be “revelations.”  Their request for my oft  told account of Apollo 13’s rescue reminded me:  Once, I had hoped that Santa Maria’s replica would become a museum piece for the NASA area.  “What a historic dream exhibit that would have been - Santa Maria moored a stone’s throw from the final resting place of  moon ship AMERICA, at  Space Center Houston!”   Apollo 17’s AMERICA was named after ship  Santa Maria’s discovery.  Additionally, the last ship to carry men to that new celestial world, the Moon, identified with Santa Maria, the first vessel to carry Columbus’s crew to the terrestrial New World we call home.

First of all, the ocean of space and the vast ocean Columbus sailed held much in common. Certainly the magnitudes of their voyages were similar when  transportation modes of their eras are compared.  For example, navigating the Santa Maria about the coastline of Europe, Africa, even to the Canaries or Azores, was a magnitude less challenging than crossing the Atlantic. Should a rudder snap, a storm arise, or a mast fracture returning to port was doable.  Similarly, the likes of John Glenn and those original seven Earth-orbiting astronauts were only a retro fire away from a safe return to Earth harbor.   Not so, for Jim Lovell and Apollo 13 on that 1970 journey to the new world of the Moon.   

Comparing these two paths of  discovery  and events recorded in their logs  show how very similar the ventures were.  Though  a half millennium  apart, one might simply exchange the names of the vessels and commanders. The stories of peril which threatened defeat both ended victoriously. Furthermore, each journey’s isolation from civilization made both ventures notable in the annals of history.  Indeed, each vessel faced  the vicissitudes of  fate.  Specifically…



            Coincidentally, the  journeys launched from latitude 28 degrees North.  For Apollo 13, this was Cape Kennedy and for Columbus,  it was the Canary Islands. Additionally, each scribed a “figure-eight”  in the oceans of Earth and space.  Even the names of major players coincided:  Christopher Columbus and NASA’s Christopher Columbus Kraft played lead roles in the respective voyages.  In fact, the Apollo 13 flight controllers used the combination “1492” to access their private rest area. Also, the journeys were to new worlds, North America and the Moon.  And, of course, both embarked  from  the old world, Europe and planet Earth.



               In each voyage, the destruction of the command ship came at an optimum place and time. This made the ultimate rescues and returns possible.  For Apollo 13, the lunar module (LM or lander)  remained attached ito the command ship in its route to the Moon.  The Santa Maria’s sinking occurred on Christmas Day of 1492 months  after the October 12th landfall in the New World.  The vessel was moored near shore at the time, a fortuitous loss.  Had the Santa Maria sunk in the ocean storm, perhaps, as the result of a storm, the saving of Columbus and the crew of Santa Maria  would be in doubt. 



               In both instances, a rescue ship, i.e., lifeboat, was employed for the long journey home.  Apollo 13’s lunar lander served that purpose while Columbus’s Nina became the rescue craft for the homeward voyage. Note the similarities of the rescue vessels: the agile caravel Nina with its triangular lateen rigging, and the lunar lander.  Compared to their respective damaged flagships, the Command Module and Santa Maria, the rescue vessels were more modest in crew size so that ingenuity was called forth. For Columbus, this meant leaving approximately 39 crewmen at Navidad. Santa Maria’s stores and timbers would launch the first colony in the New World while supplies aboard the lunar lander promised the possibility of making it home.  The lunar lander must carry three men on a four day journey to Earth though  designed for two men for two days use on the Moon.  (Incidentally, both vessels were manufactured similarly through the process of “hewing” wood and metal rather than machine stamping parts.)


               Note the importance of prayer on the ultimate success of each voyage.  After  Apollo 13’s explosion, a Congressional  edict urged that the nation pray for the crew’s rescue.  Columbus embarked from the old world with the traditional prayers of the mariner, likewise, he initiated each day with prayers for safety and success.  Additionally, when the disaster of Santa Maria’s sinking had been realized, Columbus saw the act as a work of Providence. Santa Maria’s stores and timbers  would provide  for a colony and fort.  Should he be able to return to Spain, the ensuing voyage back to Navidad would find a thriving colony at work, perhaps, with gold and silver found in the ensuing months.



Columbus invoking Scripture and prayer,   commanding a storm to cease





Popular Movie Depict Both Voyages in Detail



               Because of 1992’s emphasis on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, a movie featuring a detailed account was released.  Christopher Columbus: The Discovery  featured Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, George Corraface and Rachel Ward.  Despite some liberties taken by the film, the general historic account remained in tact. Especially accurate was the attention given to Columbus as a man of Christian faith, even to the acknowledging of spirit-led “knowings” only explained as the voice of God

               Likewise, the rescue of Apollo 13 found favor with Hollywood on the 25th anniversary of the successful rescue.  Apollo 13, featuring actor Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell and directed by Ron Howard,  proved quite accurate. Much of its technical content was based on Commander Jim Lovell’s book Lost Moon (later renamed Apollo 13). Additionally, expert former NASA flight controllers and engineers contributed to the authentic depiction of the rescue.   Of course, as with Columbus,  Apollo 13 took an occasional liberty for creative license’s sake. 

               For parents, a caution: Apollo 13 is fraught with cursing and one especially inappropriate scene at the onset (which was fictional) while Columbus, though devoid of inappropriate language, has considerable frontal nudity (in the National Geographic sense) in its latter scenes. 



         Remarkably, Columbus and Jim Lovell had been navigators aboard their previous missions about the oceans of Earth and space. Columbus was much sought after by captains sailing the eastern Atlantic, and Lovell had navigated Apollo 8, to the Moon and back in December of 1968.

               And both men later became Commanders of their respective vessels.  Of course, both Columbus’s New World Voyage and Lovell’s Apollo 13 depended on navigation for success.  While Columbus’s use of the stars has been debated, it is believed the Admiral was well able to ascertain latitude by virtue of North Star sightings using a quadrant.  Furthermore, his use of an onboard compass provided direction orientation.  He entered such data in his log book. Based on these and estimates of speed per half hour increments, he employed “dead reckoning navigation” to determine distance traveled and location. 

               Columbus had the option of using either the North Star or his compass to direct his journey west.  Thinking both compass North and North Star North were identical directions, it appears he used the compass on the outbound journey.   This  deviated his route slightly south due to the location of magnetic north slightly to the southwest of North Star determinations.  Such use of the compass was fortuitous bringing landfall days earlier and reducing the trip by as much as 400 miles.  

               The Apollo 13 astronauts lost the ability to sight the North Star or any stars as was their navigational custom.  The enshrouding refuse from the exploded tank reflected sunlight into their sextant making star sightings impossible.   To compensate, they employed a celestial adaptation of “dead reckoning” navigation.

 (Note: The log was added later, Columbus used seaweed and other floating items to judge speed.)



Apollo 13 Astronauts Employ “Dead Reckoning” Navigation


                                                                                                               North Star


Apollo 13’s Crew Navigates Home    Columbus uses quadrant to navigate Home


               Firing the lander’s engine in the shown orientation effected a “retrograde burn” which compensated for the “shallowing” reentry angle. Likewise, Apollo 13’s crew used an adapted form of the “dead reckoning” technique for a course correction. An Omega watch was used instead of the half-hour ampolleta (sand-clock).  They held course with a telescope sighting the Earth’s terminator instead of a compass.  Lastly,  they actuated hand controllers to fire thrusters rather than turning a ship’s tiller/helm to control  their craft’s  rudder.   Incidentally, the tiller and Apollo TTCA are hand activated. As Columbus neared the Old World, the night sky cleared sufficiently for a quadrant sighting of the North Star, however, the pitch, roll, and yawing of the Nina made its accuracy doubtful.  Yet, amazingly, Columbus judged Polaris’ angle above to be approximately 37 degrees which would place Nina near the latitude of the Azore Islands…remarkable  without the use of a stable quadrant sighting!  Some attribute this navigated knowing to divine guidance.


Storms Threaten Apollo 13 and Columbus at Voyage’s End



               Columbus approached the Azore Islands in the final days of the voyage home.  Then and there, the Nina began to battle fierce seaborne cyclones, storms and gales, approaching hurricane force winds. In the above picture, note the cyclone/water spout in the distance and imaginary sea monster dwelling among the enormous waves.  Again, Columbus calls upon his faith in his Lord and Savior, making vows, fasting and praying for three days until the storm lifted. 

               Shortly afterward, yet another storm called for prayer: the miraculous answer was the discovery of a small “foresail”  stowed  aboard Nina. Additionally, the Lord’s favor provides a full moon’s light to avoid the fatal shoals.  The sail was barely able to guide the bare-masted Nina past the deadly rocks and shoals.  Because only that single sail remained, the rest in tattered shreds, Nina arrived at safe harbor.

               It is in that final storm that  Providence was evident. Columbus concedes, “The Nina was very staunch and well found such that in another vessel, I would have been afraid of being lost.”  That other vessel would have been, of course, the Santa Maria.  Likewise, Apollo 13 without the other ship, the lunar lander would have been lost.   In fact, Jim Lovell’s earlier trip to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8, had no lander. Should the Command ship’s oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 8, all would have been lost.


Apollo 13’s Reentry Battles a mysterious “Celestial Wind” and Pacific Typhoon Helen



The sequence of Apollo 13’s reentry


               Again, there are remarkable correlations between Nina and Apollo 13’s final approach to their respective Old Worlds, Europe and Earth  A mysterious breeze (space is airless, i.e., a virtual vacuum) was blowing the spacecraft assemblage above Earth requiring a mid-course correction. Small rocket thrusters corrected the drift just hours before entry.  Nevertheless, the point of no return was imminent when adjustment would be impossible, so that the question had to be answered: Would the breeze would continue or cease?  Selecting the wrong option, likely, would be fatal.  ( Days later, the cause was found: the lunar lander’s water boiler cooling system giving off vapor acted like a wind.)  Just as Columbus and his crew had prayed, Earth’s peoples were praying for  Apollo 13’s  crew.

               Here arises another interesting correlation: It is believed that the only celestial sighting Columbus recorded in his log was shortly before reaching landfall in the Azores.  Though flawed by rough seas, the quadrant  sighting of star Polaris was made through a clear night sky.  In similar fashion, Apollo 13’s first celestial sighting of a star, after the explosion,  came just before landfall. Separated from the refuse of the ruptured service module, the crew was able to sight the star Aquila, the Eagle.  This confirmed the Earth terminator “dead reckoning” method  used earlier.

Hurricane Helen           Retro Officer


               In some respects, the course of typhoon Helen which threatened Apollo 13’s splashdown was less predictable than the final storms Columbus battled.  Weathermen advised the retro to move the splashdown point elsewhere, but, like Columbus, an inner voice, assured the retro that not only would that inexplicable breeze cease but also, he should  ignore the weathermen’s prediction. 

               The Nina required heavy ballast to maintain stability in rough seas such that the crew filled caskets with water in the bowels of the ship.  It was not certain such would provide sufficient mass to steady the keel through rough seas.   Apollo 13 employed gyros to steady the capsule through the path to Earth, but they required a day’s warming for accuracy.  Electrical limitations permitted but a few hours of heating so that, like Nina’s water caskets, the gyros might not steady Apollo 13’s  keel sufficiently to survive  reentry. 

               And so the final scene played out for both explorers, Christopher Columbus and  Jim Lovell.   After the wind shredded all Nina’s remaining sails in that final storm, all appeared lost.   There would be no return to the

Court of Ferdinand and Isabella.   The ballast and rudder simply could not hold course keeping Nina from the fatal shore rocks.  And then, call it Providence or answered prayer, good luck, fortune, or chance, salvation appeared. That single small sail was found, stowed where no one had looked previously.    Attached low on Nina’s bow, the sail brought the Admiral of the Ocean Sea home safely. 

               Why was it there and not previously used?  Perhaps, Apollo 13’s perilous reentry answers the question?

Indeed, the retro had chosen rightly, believing the breeze would cease and that the weathermen were wrong about the hurricane. But what about those gyros?   Would they steer an accurate course home?  And had that final course correction been sufficient to place Apollo 13 properly in the entry corridor? 

               The fiery entry of NASA’s spaceships experience a phenomena known as “radio blackout”.  The loss of communication results from superheated atmospheric ions blocking radio waves. Blackout’s end is predictable to the second.  Yet, when Apollo 13’s radio blackout should have lifted, there was silence.  Five…ten…fifteen seconds elapsed beyond that time on  mission control’s clocks.  Watching the displays all wondered, “Had the gyros failed…did the mysterious breeze blow the crew off course, had the craft descended too steeply being consumed by the fires of reentry?”



Fiery reentry causes added 31 seconds Radio “blackout”.


               No, there was no miraculous sail like that which guided Nina  to safe harbor. Nevertheless, at 31.5 seconds came a voice, “Houston, this is Apollo 13, we are on the mains.”   What happened in that silent half minute has not been satisfactorily explained to this day.  Perhaps, the best answer is, “The One who brought Columbus safely home also acted in behalf of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, the crew of  Apollo 13.



                                Columbus Welcomed by Queen Isabella                   Apollo 13 Crew Safe

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