Apollo 13 Rescue Spacecraft

By Jerry Woodfill

Apollo 13 Warning System Engineer




            Perhaps, the most  telling evidence that  God was involved in rescuing Apollo 13 was the 1970 movie Marooned. The movie was showing at a local theater near the Manned Spacecraft Center, the night of Apollo 13’s explosion,  Monday, April 13th, 1970.   The film’s plot had astronauts stranded in space aboard the Apollo command and service module.  Appropriately named Marooned, it was a Hollywood adaptation of Martin Caidin’s novel of the same name.   

            Comparing Tom Howard’s film  Apollo 13 and Marooned  has to be more than coincidental.   It’s got to be supernatural.  In fact, NASA engineers needing key solutions to save Apollo 13’s crew were at the theater watching  the movie when the ship exploded.  God  was both warning and instructing them how to rescue Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise.    

            Because Marooned dealt with an orbital mission, no lunar lander was involved as a “lifeboat.”.   However, a rescue vehicle capable of saving the crew was part of Marooned’s plot.    Though Richard Crenna, Marooned’s commander, sacrifices his life for his crew, his comrades benefit from a “ship of salvation.”  Happily, the rescue vehicle, piloted by David Janssen (of the TV series The Fugitive fame)  arrives in time just before oxygen and power is lost.   As a result, Gene Hackman and James Franciscus survive.    As with Apollo 13’s lunar lander,  Marooned’s rescue vehicle is responsible.

            As an educational exercise,  it would be instructive to construct  a paper version of Marooned’s rescue space ship.   The fictitious spacecraft was almost an identical copy of  a vehicle of the era  classified as an  orbital lifting body.   The vehicle depicted in the movie is very similar to an air force space vehicle named the Dynasoar, or X-20.  It is shown below:



            In the early 1990s, I was involved in the design of space vehicles designated “personal launch systems.”  Such spacecraft were known by the NASA acronym PLS.  One such design is featured below.  The Apollo 13/Marooned paper rescue craft closely resembles this craft.




Above is a photo of the actual prototype modeled for the movie.  The front vehicle to  the left of the photo is almost identical to the PLS shown above.  The rocket engine is an upper stage used to deploy satellites or deep space probes, but in this case it would be the final stage of a booster atop which the Marooned rescue craft would be mounted.  


            Click here for a  colored template to build through folding a fictitious personal launch system to rescue the crew of Apollo 13. If the lunar lander had failed as a lifeboat, the rescue ship would have been needed.   Print the template image on a color printer, then cut the rectangular image along the border lines before beginning the folding process.  Staple the fuselage midway along its length in order to give the paper structure stability and a means of launching the rescue craft  with your hand.

            Because my instructions may be difficult to follow, I’ve included photos of steps in the folding process to assist you in making the spaceship.  Before starting, it would be good to gather materials for the exercise:  A straight edge (ruler), a stapler, and scissors.   Of course, it is assumed that the template picture can be printed on an 8.5” X 11” piece of paper with a color computer printer.  After printing the layout drawing of the Apollo 13 Rescue ship based on the movie Marooned, go to the folding instructions and photos below to construct the spacecraft.

There is one more item to add to the materials list. It is a paper clip. After you finish folding the Apollo 13 Rescue ship, read the paragraph at the conclusion of the construction steps to see why a paper clip is very important.









Step 1: Print the template on a color printer.  The printed template is shown above before the borders are trimmed with scissors in the next step by cutting along the lines bordering the layout template.



Step 2.  Cut out the rectangular template as shown above.  Discard the four border strips.




Step 3. Fold the paper in half vertically as shown above in steps 2. and 3.



3. Note:  The template image is inside for this step. This creates a crease in the center of the template.



Step 4. Open the template and create a crease, i.e., fold along the line shown above.  Aligning the edge of a table or ruler might help to make this fold. This fold ultimately serves to make the vertical  tail of the spacecraft.   It will become a  “valley fold” as it appears in Step 6.  



Step 5. Now fold the other side in the same fashion as Step 5 to help make the “valley fold.” This creases the side of the valley fold as shown above. (The actual valley will the opposite of the valley shown above, but the creases make above will help to fashion the valley shown in the Step 6.



Step 6.  Shape the valley folds inward as suggested above until the picture appears as seen below.






Step 7. Using the valley creases, make the valley fold as shown above with the paper again folded in two with the template inside as well as the valley fold pointing inside.  (This is the most difficult fold of the project.  Work with the folded valley edges until the valley and paper look like the above photo.)




Step 8.  Open the template and fold along the center line as shown above.        



Step 9. Fold back the other half along the center line as shown above.




Step 10. Fold down along the right wing line to make one wing.




Step 11. Fold down along the other wing line to make the other wing.




Step 12. Flatten the folded template on table as shown above.




Step 13.  Fold upward as shown the outer left wing surface.




Step 13. In like fashion as Step 12. fold the right outer wing surface upward as shown




Step 14.  Note the triangular paper shape beneath the fuselage bottom black line. These are to be folded along the lower fuselage black line 180 degrees behind the fuselage as shown in Steps 15. and 16.




Step 15. Fold the right triangular section along the fuselage bottom line into the center of the template flat against the fuselage.




Step. 16.  Fold the left triangle section along the fuselage bottom line into the inside of the template flat against the inside wall of the fuselage.



Step 17.  Staple through the entire fuselage as shown to hold the PLS paper spacecraft together near the center of gravity.. 




Step 18. Note the pointed nose of the ship




Step 19. Fold back the pointed nose inside the fuselage nose as shown above to blunt its shape..




Above are photos of the  completed Apollo 13 Rescue Spacecraft

Final Step: Now launch your Apollo 13 PLS Rescue spacecraft. I did and immediately noticed that it was not very airworthy in that it sort of "nose-dived" to an upside-down landing just like the landing seen in the NASA picture below.

Perhaps, my oversight related to this unfortunate result. Read on. [Incidentally, the popular television series The Six Million Dollar Man had a similar incident. Steve Austin became the Six Million Dollar Man as a result of injuries from the crash of a lifting body like that seen in the photo. Six million dollars of robotics resurrected Steve Austin into something of a "super-human". Doctors gave Steve robotic body parts to replace those severely injured in the crash.]

A friend of mine fixed the spacecraft's problem. The center of gravity is too far to the tail of the craft. What is the center of gravity, anyway? The center of gravity of the PLS would be the point where you could balance the spaceship on the tip of your finger. It would be sort of like two people of equal weight sitting on opposite ends of a playground titter-totter. The position of the support about which the ends rotate would be like your finger. The titter-totter would not tilt toward either person because the center would be the center of gravity. Putting a heavier person on one end would shift the center of gravity toward that person.

The PLS's center of gravity has the heavier person toward the tail. This causes the PLS spaceship to pitch up and over immediately after it is launched forward. If the center of gravity could be moved forward toward the nose, this pitch would be eliminated and the PLS would sail smoothly forward. My friend solved the problem with a 2 inch long paper clip. [You might need a pair of one inch long paper clips.] He simply slid the paper clip onto the blunt nose of the PLS with the length of the paper clip parallel to the length of the PLS. Try it to make your PLS air-worthy. I did, and it flies on...and...on...and...on......

Still More Activities Based on the Apollo 13 Rescue Craft

1.Show the class both the movie Apollo 13 and Marooned. Edit out scenes that are inappropriate or add little to the purpose of comparing events in both stories. Do this by simply fast forwarding past them, or paraphrase events which are not shown because of class time limitations. Have students take notes about key challenges to saving the astronauts identified in each movie. From these lists, have students write a paper discussing those that are similar and those which are not alike. Have them compare the astronauts in each movie in regard to personality and other traits.
2. Have students read both the book Marooned by Martin Caidin and Apollo 13 by astronaut Jim Lovell. Ask them to write a paper listing the similar events in the rescues as well as those which were not alike.
3. Because the activity requires only a sheet of paper and paper clip for each student to participate, the low materials cost enables each student to enter his/her Apollo 13 Rescue PLS in a contest. The competition would be for the PLS which:
a. sailed the greatest distance,
b. stayed aloft for the longest time,
c. landed nearest a target,
d. performed the most unusual maneuver, and
e. was first to reach the finish line in an air race.

Prior to the above contests, explain to the students that position, size, weight and number of nose paper clips affects the ability to win each of the contests. Demonstrate these concepts. Set aside a time, perhaps, 15 minutes for each student to experiment with his PLS to optimize performance prior to the contests. The competition should be done in "heats" of 5 students launching their PLS space ships. Winners of the heats would then compete in a championship round.

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