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July 5, 2005
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NASA's Finest Hour
Sy Liebergot recalls the race to save Apollo 13
Marking the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, Flight Director Gene Kranz (left) and Command
and Service Module Life Support Systems Flight Controller Sy Liebergot were honored guests at a
Boeing-sponsored ceremony in June at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. (Jim Anderson photo)
By Bill Seil
It has been 35 years since Sy Liebergot sat in Mission Control in Houston and alerted his boss –
lead Flight Director Gene Kranz – about a "problem" with Apollo 13.
He has vivid memories of that day in April 1970, when the spacecraft was speeding toward the
moon and Oxygen Tank 2 inside the service module exploded. It wasn't immediately clear from the
readings on Liebergot's console that the three astronauts on board – Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and
Jack Swigert – were in grave danger.
He laughs when he recalls his report to Kranz, which he believes may be the biggest understatement
of the space program:
"We may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight."
But the severity of the problem soon became clear, and Liebergot took action. He instructed Kranz
to have the crew begin an emergency power down in order to lighten the load on the single
remaining fuel cell, after two other cells had apparently gone offline.
Today the public knows the story of the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 through director Ron
Howard's 1995 motion picture. Liebergot's place in history is immortalized by the actor who
portrayed him, the director's brother, Clint Howard. Since the movie was made, Liebergot and Clint
Howard have become close friends.
Though retired from NASA, Liebergot is still in the space program. An employee of