The Perils

Wreck of Santa Maria

Christmas Eve of 1492, Santa Maria ran aground and sank. April 13th, 1970, Apollo 13's main supply vessel, the service module, exploded and became useless. Though both accidents happened a half millennium apart, many similarities exist between the events.

Wreck of Apollo 13

Comparing the accidents reveals perils of exploration common to both missions. Likewise, a study of each rescue is a fascinating undertaking. In Columbus's case, failure to assure the night watch was awake and alert proved fatal to the vessel. Jim Lovell's crew was not alerted to a flaw in an oxygen tank resulting from being dropped during manufacture.

Fortunately, for both crews, escape routes had been planned. Columbus employed lifeboats for the initial rescue then returned to Spain on another of his fleet's ships, the Nina. Lovell's crew activated the lunar landing craft. It became their lifeboat and rescue ship in the same way that Columbus used the Nina. Since the Nina could not accommodate Santa Maria's stranded crew of 40, most of Santa Maria's crew remained in the New World. Apollo 13's rescue ship was designed for a two man two day mission. Return to their home port, Earth, would take four days. In order to survive, the crew had to severely conserve available oxygen, water, and electrical power.

Other Potential Perils:

Common dangers to both missions were storms. Because Apollo launches and landings were in Earth's atmosphere, winds, rain, and lightning threatened space travel as much as Columbus's sea voyages. Apollo 12 experienced a lightning strike which disabled critical systems during launch. Apollo 13's reentry dealt with an unpredictable hurricane. Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell Mercury capsule sank in heavy seas. But it was a hurricane which nearly erased Columbus's deed from history. Approaching Spain, Columbus's Nina ( Nina was Columbus's return ship after Santa Maria's destruction.) encountered a fierce storm. Navigation was altogether impossible in this instance.

At the mercy of the wind and waves, the Nina was "bare-rigged" ( without sails). Had it not been for the discovery of a small fore sail inadvertently stowed aboard Nina, the ship could not have avoided the rocky shoreline of Portugal. All aboard would have perished. America's crew had similar stowed options. Should they descend in storm tossed seas far from recovery ships, a life raft with provisions as well as a radio locator would assist their rescue.

Certainly, the greatest means of protecting America's crew was the launch escape system (LES), a towering rocket attached atop the crew module. Analogous to Santa Maria's life boats, the LES carried the capsule out of harm's way should the boost rocket explode at launch or shortly thereafter.


1. How might the captains, Columbus and Lovell, have proactively prevented the loss of their vessels?

2. Do you think the captains were to blame for the loss of their ships?

3. What benefits do you think might have resulted from the accidents?

Return to Home Port

Last modified: Monday, 28-Aug-00 04:00:00 PM CDT

Author: Jerry Woodfill / NASA, Mail Code ER7,

Curator: Cecilia Breigh, NASA JSC ER7

Responsible Official: Charles Gott, NASA JSC ER7

Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division, Walter W. Guy, Chief.