Which was the greater achievement-Apollo 11 or Apollo 13?

Today was the 39th anniversary of the first moon landing, an inarguably tremendous achievement. What it took to make that happen is almost incomprehensible.


I’m inclined to go with Apollo 13. Not that it was easy when everything went right, but Lovell, Haise and Swigert were three of the luckiest people of all time. It’s one thing to wing it when you’re in an airplane, which is difficult enough, it’s another thing to make things up as you go when you’re thousands of miles from Earth.

Apollo 13 was a trainwreck from the beginning, starting with the POGO oscillation that shut down the center engine on the Saturn V and continuing with the explosion that wrecked the Command Module. Those guys were all but dead. Through a series of improvisations and luck they managed to make it back alive.

The oxygen could have run out, the explosion could have decompressed the Command Module, they might not have been able to resolve the carbon dioxide poisoning problem, they might have skipped off the atmosphere…if any one of those things had happened they’d still be floating out there, three corpses in space.

That was the greater achievement, in my opinion.

Failure was not an option.

(somebody had to say it)

I’d have to agree with you all the way. And I can’t really put it any better than you did.

To quote the great Lord John Whorfin: “Character is what you are in the dark.”

IOW, with careful, meticulous planning by a cast of literally thousands, it’s no surprise when everything goes right.

When it goes wrong…that’s where you see true brilliance.

In that regard, I agree with you.

Both acheivements were great … The first reflected the courage of the astronauts, and the engineering, and administration of NASA as well as the political will of Americans and the health of their national economy.

The second reflected all of the previous reasons plus the incredible sheer composure and intelligence of a limited group of people at the flight control centre. Thus I’d go along with the OP and Hollywood. I say Hollywood, because I don’t think they made a movie about Apollo 11

Well, some argue that Apollo 11 was a movie… :smiley:

Not just the guys in Mission Control. There were engineers all over the country working around the clock to make it happen.

Well… Apollo 13 was certainly more heroic. But Apollo 11 was one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time, and fixing something, no matter how difficult the conditions, isn’t greater than building it in the first place.

Anyway, you can’t really seperate the two. The Apollo project was a collossal undertaking from beginning to end, and you have to judge it as a whole. To put it differently: Apollo 11 was a monumental achivement before it even left the ground. The actual landing was just a systems test - a test flight.

I disagree. Let me make a comparison with an anecdote of my own.

The military aircraft I fly on has a system that deploys a trailing wire out of the belly of the aircraft. Under normal circumstances it’s not a problem, it goes out, it comes in, no big deal.

A few weeks ago the system malfunctioned in a dramatic fashion. We took measures to solve the problem, but nothing worked. We were forced to resort to a procedure that, while it was contained in the checklist, had never been attempted before in the 30 years we had operated the system. We were fortunate that it worked, although even in accomplishing the cutaway we experienced some aberrations. Had it not worked, we had nothing left to try. We were down to our last resort.

As we were within the atmosphere we were assured that we would hit the ground, one way or another. I was fitting up my parachute, it was that close. I had the luxury of alternatives. The Apollo 13 astronauts had no such luxury. They were down to their last resort numerous times. When you get to the point where you have no other choice you’re already in trouble. They faced that numerous times.

It’s one thing to have everything go according to plan. It’s something else entirely to do something and hope for the best. I faced it one time and I was scared shitless. These guys faced it countless times and managed to make it home. What happened to them is something you cannot plan for, and carries a danger all its own.

Just as it was surely more dangerous to fix the problem with my plane, it was orders of magnitude more dangerous for the Apollo 13 astronauts to fix the problems they were experiencing with their spacecraft.

That sounds amazing.

And yes, it was dangerous, and yes, it was heroic. But we’re not talking about danger or heroism here, we’re talking about greatness. I mean, I personally have done certain things in my lifetime which were more dangerous than, say, Isaac Newton’s writing of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, insomuch as many things can be considered more dangerous than writing with a quill. But have I achieved his level of greatness?

In other words, it was mostly a disaster.
In any case, I would have voted for Apollo 11. Essentially because I’m in agreement with Armstrong’s statement when he landed on the Moon (mooned??? how do you call that in English???). Regardless how heroic later astronauts might have been, it just doesn’t compare. The specific individuals involved, and their personal hardships are IMO much less important than having sent someone, anyone, on the Moon. THAT was an incredibly impressive achievement.

It’s irrelevant IMO. For instance, maybe your flight was more dangerous than the Wrights’ first flight. But which one was the greatest achievement?
Or else, you should reformulate your question by asking about heroism instead of achievement. And even then, I’m not convinced Apollo 13 should win the prize because the fact that essentially everything went right with Apollo 11 and essentially everything went wrong with Apollo 13 doesn’t make the participants of the latter flight more heroic than the participants of the former one. I’m sure they were more scared, but more heroic? Being the first guy to be sent 300 000 kms away in a metal can isn’t exactly trivial.
What happened during Apollo 13 was an accident (or several accidents) that put the astronauts in great danger, but an accident isn’t an achievement, and being in a dangerous situation isn’t, either.

Perhaps being in a dangerous situation does not constitute an achievement, but I would argue that surviving it is a far greater achievement than when everything works as it should. They don’t usually give awards for routine missions, they give awards for overcoming adverse conditions. Nobody ever won the Medal of Honor for a routine flight, you know what I mean?

I know - and nobody ever won a Nobel Prize for landing an aircraft, no matter how difficult the conditions.

But Apollo 11 was everything except routine. And besides, it seems to me that you’re focusing too much on the individuals by referring to survival or awards. The Apollo program was much more than a collection of individual anecdotes.
I mean : it might have been a major personal achievement for you to survive, but it certainly wasn’t an achievement for the United States that one of their numerous planes failed and that the anonymous airmen on board managed to avoid being killed.
I think that ** Alessan **'s comparison is perfectly correct. All of us did things more dangerous than writing a book, but very few of these things would qualify as a significant achievement except from an individual point of view. You’ve recently been (or maybe still are) a student, and it’s very possible that it was/is harder for you to succeed in your endeavour than for Einstein to come up with the theory of relativity, but his achievement is still greater than yours. If you don’t focus on the involved individual’s point of view, how much hardship you face isn’t a measure of the greatness of your achievements.
And I would add that it doesn’t remove anything from the value of one’s accomplishments. A single mother who raise five children on a low income and turn them into functional adults is most certainly worthy of respect, and I would even argue, very possibly more so than Neil Armstrong is, but the fact of having an human being, regardless of who he is, walking on the Moon is a greater achievement because it’s the completion of a dream humanity had for centuries. Even though he, as an individual, just made “a small step”.

Drive-by observation: Apollo 11 was the first, successful, attempt that made the later moon shot attempts possible, including 13.

Imagine if an Apollo 13 scenario had happened on our first attempt. No matter how heroic the astronauts, would there even have been any further attempts?

My vote goes to 11, for the same reason that Hillary & Tensing’s summit of Everest was a great achievement, even though nowadays blind one-legged grandmothers do the summit without oxygen (I exaggerate slightly). They were the first. Armstrong took the Giant Leap for all of us, not Lovell & co. Their achievment was much more personal, IMO. Surviving’s great, but it’s not earthshattering. “The Eagle Has Landed” definitely was.

Full Disclaimer - I am named after an 11 astronaut, so might be biased…

A lot depends on whether you mean Apollo 11, the individual spaceflight, or Apollo 11 as the sum total of all that the U.S. had done in the previous decade or so to be able to make Apollo 11 happen.

If the former, then Apollo 13 wins: even at the time, I felt there was something anticlimactic about the moon landing; it already seemed all but inevitable. The previous Christmas, Apollo 8 had been around the moon and back. Earlier in 1969, Apollo 10 (IIRC) had separated the lander, which had gone most of the way down to the surface, and rejoined the orbiter. We’d already done everything except the actual landing and takeoff.

But if the latter, Apollo 11 wins by a mile.

I fully expect that in 500 years children will still be taught about Neil Armstrong being the first man to set foot on the moon, the same way that Columbus was taught in school 500 years after his voyages.

Apollo 11 was an achievement of historic proportion. It was the very first time in human history that someone has walked on a celestial body other than the Earth.

Apollo 13 may have been a more difficult task to accomplish, but the goal (saving 3 lives) is immeasurably smaller then Apollo 11’s goal.

It depends what your yardstick is.

Apollo 13 may well have been the greatest accomplishment of emergency, seat-of-your-pants engineering, science, and disaster recovery teamwork in human history.

Apollo 11 was, however, the culmination of pretty much the entire history of physics, chemistry, and engineering in aviation history up to that point. Without the creation of the Apollo program and success of Apollo 11, Apollo 13 doesn’t even exist.