The Chemistry of Apollo 13


The Apollo 13 mission was the seventh manned Apollo flight, and was supposed to be the third to land on the surface of the moon.  During the flight an oxygen tank exploded, causing the crew to have to find a way to return to Earth safely.  After a few days, the crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.  I believe this mission is a very important part of the history of space exploration that more people should know about.

Composition of ...

Teflon Wire Insulation

  • Polytetrafluoroethylene(PTFE)

  • (C2F4)n

    Liquid Oxygen

  • O2

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

Teflon wire insulation is made from Polytetrafluoroethylene(PTFE). PTFE has a chemical formula of (C2F4)n.  It is used to keep the electricity from sparking.  The insulation that caused the problems was in one of the oxygen tanks.  This insulation caused problems because it had been melted during maintenance of the tank.


When oxygen is stored it is normally stored in liquid form.  This is because oxygen can be stored much more condensed in liquid form.  Since oxygen is rarely found in a single atom, it is stored bonded together.  This causes the chemical formula to be O2.

Chemistry's Role

Teflon wire insulation is made from a material called Polytetrafluoroethylene(PTFE).  PTFE is a very non-reactive material, that is hydrophobic, and has a high melting point.  PTFE is made by putting tetrafluoroethylene through a process called free-radical polymerization.  If done properly this process is safe; however, if done wrong it can cause problems later on.

Oxygen is an element that is involved in many fires.  Oxygen itself is not flammable; however, it causes everything around it to have a higher chance of catching on fire.  Even though the oxygen itself is not on fire, it is often considered the cause of the fire.

Background Research

What is it? The Apollo 13 was the third spacecraft NASA sent to the moon.  On the way
to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded.  This explosion made much of the spacecraft

What was the mission of Apollo 13? The main mission of Apollo 13 was to land on the moon.  The plan was to explore a widespread, hilly selenological area known as the Fra Mauro formation,  The mission after, Apollo 14, successfully explored this area.

What caused the explosion? The crew performed a “cryo stir.” This procedure heated and fanned the stored gases and prevented the them from settling into layers.  During the procedure a spark, inside the second oxygen tank, caused the tank to explode.

What chemicals were involved? The main element that was involved was oxygen.  A spark caused the highly flammable, highly pressurized liquid to rapidly expand and explode.


Information about the astronauts

Basic information about the spacecraft

Information about the explosion

Information about the living conditions during the return

A basic time table

Many specific details

Describes what caused the tanks to be faulty

Basic flight information

Explains what the crew was doing

Talks about retrieving the ship

Basic information

Talks about parts of the spacecraft

Talks about the oxygen tanks that were used on board

Explains what the wire insulation was made of

Talks about its properties

Information about liquid oxygen

Explains how oxygen is not flammable

Explains how oxygen causes fires

About the Author
Ryan Hinrichs is in his third year at Billings Senior High School.  He enjoys hands on classes, such as chemistry and many electives.  During his time away from school he likes to fish and go on hikes that take multiple days.  Ryan is not sure what he wants to do after high school, but he will most likely attend a state university or join the military.