by Bill Murphy
After an oxygen tank exploded aboard Apollo 13 in 1970, the crew and mission control at Johnson Space Center faced hurdle after hurdle in devising a way to get the astronauts home safely.
The crew overcame limited fuel and electrical power, a failing air filter system that led to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and the threat of a tropical storm blowing the capsule far off course from its expected landing destination.
Without divine intervention, he says, the crew and Johnson Space Center’s mission control team could not have overcome obstacles and brought the astronauts home safely.
“The whole world prayed. The pope in Rome prayed. People prayed all over the world,” says Woodfill, 75, who still works at the Johnson Space Center. “I saw prayer make a difference during Apollo 13.”
During a recent speech at Rothko Chapel in Montrose, Woodfill described how Apollo 13 and other experiences he went through not long after the space flight transformed him into a devout Christian. His presentation was the last in the chapel’s Concept of the Divine lecture series.
“An unrehearsed script seemed to be guiding the drama,” he wrote in a pamphlet that he distributed to the Rothko Chapel audience.
When the explosion occurred, the crew wrongly assumed that space debris may have hit the lunar lander, creating a hole. Crew members tried to close the hatch between the space module and the lunar lander, but the hatch would not shut. Its failure to close helped the astronauts because they later relied on the lunar lander for their flight home.
“Again, an unseen author had scripted an implausible event … a NASA-designed mechanism failing during the simplest of functions: closing a hatch,” Woodfill writes.
Woodfill, then a 27-year-old electrical engineer from Rice University, was among the NASA staffers who considered how the crew could address the rising levels of carbon dioxide. The crew’s battle to return home safely was celebrated in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks as Cmdr. Jim Lovell.
The mission manager called Woodfill to his office to discuss the carbon dioxide problem.
“He asked me about the calibration curves for the CO2 sensor,” Woodfill writes. “My thought was, ‘It’s remarkable that I have this data since it was not my direct responsibility. This can’t be a coincidence. There is someone beyond myself assisting here.’”
Johnson Space Center engineers solved the carbon dioxide problem by instructing the crew to build filters using plastic bags and duct tape.
During his lecture — on April 17, the 48th anniversary of Apollo 13’s safe return — Woodfill, upbeat and optimistic, held up a roll of duct tape.
“God saw, by his providence, that this stuff would be on board,” he said, “and it’s called duct tape.”
NASA planned for the space ship to land in the Pacific Ocean. After those plans were laid, NASA meteorologists sought to move the landing site because Tropical Storm Helen looked like it would move through that area. But NASA managers did not alter their plans.
The storm shifted course, and the spacecraft landed safely.
Not long after its return, NASA received a letter from a special education teacher.
Woodfill said he attributes the change in the storm’s direction to divine intervention — God interceded after hearing the class’s prayer.
He said he does not believe that God answers all prayers. Clearly, many prayed that the Challenger enjoy a safe flight in 1986, he said. All seven crew members died when the spaceship exploded shortly after takeoff.
In 2003, Columbia’s seven crew members were killed when the spacecraft disintegrated upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.
“Prayer didn’t help them at all,” said Woodfill, the father of Jared Woodfill, former head of the Harris County Republican Party, and the Rev. Matt Woodfill, pastor of The Way Church in The Woodlands.
But God’s failure to intercede in certain instances, he said, does not mean that he does not often intercede.
“A lot of these things, I don’t understand,” he said. “When I get to the Lord, he’ll tell me.”
A man in the Rothko Chapel audience said that even if Woodfill’s take on Apollo 13 were true and that God had intervened to bring the crew home safely, he wondered why God had not prevented the oxygen tank from exploding in the first place.
Woodfill said he acknowledged that events such as the Challenger and Columbia tragedies raise serious questions. But he said he believes in the power of prayer.
Bill Murphy is a writer in Houston.