Apollo 13 and long-distance tax returns

When you think of Apollo 13 – which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020 – the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t something as mundane as tax returns.

But, for a brief period, we were reminded that even astronauts aren’t immune from such menial tasks.

It was two days into the mission, and the explosion that would cripple command module Odyssey and endanger the lives of the crew was still another day and a half away.

CAPCOM Joe Kerwin was speaking to the crew, giving them a run-down of note-worthy pieces of the day’s news, and he jokingly asked, “Have you guys completed your income tax?”

Commander Jim Lovell replied in kind. “How do I apply for an extension?”

However, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert realised it was no laughing matter. “It ain’t too funny. Things kind of happened real fast down there, and I do need an extension.”

To say things happened quickly wouldn’t be exaggerating.

Photo credit: NASA

Swigert had originally been designated as a member of Apollo 13’s back-up crew alongside John Young and Charlie Duke, acting as prime Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly‘s reserve in case anything should prevent Mattingly from flying.

Back-up crew-members had only had to take over from the prime crew once before in NASA’s history, and that was when the original prime crew were killed in a jet crash.

But, when Mattingly was exposed to the measles through Duke, he was pulled from the prime crew, lest he come down with the illness while stuck in lunar orbit. (It is worth noting that Mattingly never did show any symptoms, and he went on to act as command module pilot for Apollo 16 alongside Young and Duke two years later.)

For Swigert, though, it meant he found himself on Apollo 13’s prime crew with just days to go before launch. Suddenly, the job of filling out those income tax returns wasn’t so high up on his list of priorities.

“Hey, Joe,” Swigert said. “I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really serious about that.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Kerwin reassured. “Tom Stafford [Chief of the Astronaut Office] says he’ll get an extension for you.”

A couple of hours later, Kerwin came back with a crumb of comfort. “Jack, the preliminary indications are that you can get a 60-day extension on filing your income tax if you’re out of the country.”

Out of the country. An understatement if there ever was one.

As we all know, Swigert soon had more pressing issues on his hands, but the situation nonetheless served as a humanising reminder that even astronauts aren’t spared from the joys of paperwork, even if they are some 200,000 miles from Earth.

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