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Great Moments in DIY History: Apollo 13

There are hundreds of makeshift hacks in the DIY hall of fame, but you'd be hard pressed to find one more impressive than the MacGyvering done by the stone cold crew of Apollo 13, who successfully got themselves home 44 years ago today.

On their way to the moon, a small explosion ignited some insulation, causing a fire that paralyzed the Service Module (see the blown off cover on the side of the module above) and left the Command Module to rely on its emergency battery power. As a last resort that had only been partially thought out as a backup-backup plan, the crew retreated to the lunar module, which became their lifeboat as NASA figured out how to get them back.

Running Out of Gas 200,000 Miles from Home
With all hell breaking loose more than 200,000 miles from the Mother Earth, NASA had no choice but to abort the mission. But getting back home posed a problem: they couldn't use the Service Module's main engine, since that would require jettisoning the Lunar Module, which was serving as their life boat. The reverse option, jettisoning the Service Module and using the Lunar Module's engine to get back, wasn't in the cards either because they needed to use the Service Module as heat shield.

Since NASA was involved, this was not actually a "problem," but merely a "challenge." Our space-wizards figured out how to literally coast back to Gaia using some ridiculous NASA-aikido that would utilize the Earth and Moon's own gravitational forces to slingshot the spacecraft back home. However, they had already left the required trajectory for this free ride, so they had to use the Lunar Module's Descent Propulsion System to push them back on course. Sort of like a little cosmic power steering.

Jury-Rigging the Breathing System
Getting home wasn't the only objective; it was getting home alive. But while there was enough oxygen for the crew to breathe, the Lunar Module's carbon dioxide removal system was in trouble. The canisters it needed were out of reach, and the canisters for the Command Module didn't fit. A bit of MacGyvering was required.

Using cardboard, plastic bags, duct tape, and a hose from one of the spacesuits, NASA figured out how to improvise a stopgap that would keep them alive. Basically, they would draw in the cabin's air with the spacesuit fan, feed it through a pair of the Command Module's canisters stacked and taped together, which would be reinforced by cardboard and duct tape and sealed by plastic bags. 

It ended up looking extremely professional (it's that box with the grid of tape). 

On April 17, 1970, three days and 18 hours after informing Houston of their problem, our three heroes splashed down in the Pacific.

Since all this was done under the intense pressure of certain death, in a microgravity situation, on stomachs full of gross space food, the Apollo 13 mission makes a solid case for being one of the greatest moments in DIY history.


Ethan Wolff-Mann is the Gear editor of Supercompressor. He would go to Mars if NASA asked him. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.