Comparing the Voyages of Columbus and Apollo 13
An Amazing Correlation
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.)
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’s Crew Navigates Home Columbus uses quadrant to navigate Home
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. Yet another storm threatened Columbus. But a fortuitous discovery, a small “foresail” stowed aboard Nina enabled the crew to avoid disaster. Additionally, the fortuitous favor provided 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 “good fortune” 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 another ship, the two man 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 have 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.)
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, 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.
After reading the above account, list the similarities in the respective missions. Next, compose a page long paper choosing those comparisons that seem most remarkable considering the voyages happened more than five hundred years apart.