This Week in History — Week of April 11

Marcela Montufar Soria, Multimedia Editor

April 11, 1970: Apollo 13 was launched.

After the successes of the Apollo 11 and the Apollo 12 missions, Apollo 13 was set to be NASA’s third moon-landing mission. The mission was manned by astronauts John “Jack” Swigert as command module pilot, Fred Haise as lunar module pilot and James Lovell as the commander. Almost 56 hours into the mission, oxygen tank No. 2 blew up, causing No. 1 to fail and lose two out of three fuel cells. It was at this time that Swigert said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” echoed right after by Lovell. At around 200,000 miles from Earth, the Apollo 13 crew lost their main supply of electricity, light and water. One oxygen tank was completely empty, and the other one was venting rapidly. The crew was instructed to move into the Aquarius lunar module as NASA personnel back on Earth searched for a way to get them back safely. Apollo 13 changed course to slingshot around the moon and used the module’s engine to speed them back to Earth while they worked to repair the Odyssey command module. They splashed down in the Pacific Ocean in the repaired Odyssey on April 17. The mission was considered a “successful failure” in that it failed its original purpose, but the crew returned safely against all odds due to ingenuity and sheer effort. 

April 12, 1961: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

Gagarin was 27 years old when he became the first man to orbit Earth in the Vostok 1 capsule. The mission lasted just 89 minutes and was guided by an automatic control system. The young test pilot and industrial technician became a worldwide celebrity following the mission and was awarded the Order of Lenin as well as the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” The United States space program would not have a mission to orbit the Earth until 1962, with three orbits. By then, the Vostok 2 from August 1961 had already completed 17 orbits and spent over 25 hours in space. Gagarin never returned to space following Vostok 1 but worked in training other cosmonauts. He died during an accident during a routine aviation training flight on March 27, 1968.

April 13, 1964: Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award.

Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida to Bahamian parents and died at age 94 in Los Angeles, California on Jan. 6, 2022. He grew up in the Bahamas, where his father worked as a potato farmer and returned to the U.S. when he was a teenager, enlisting to be a soldier in the Second World War. Afterward,  he joined the American Negro Theatre in New York City and quickly made his way to Hollywood. He was first nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award in 1959 for “The Defiant Ones (1958),” but it was not until 1964 that he won the Oscar for “Lilies of the Field (1963)” and became the second Black person and the first Black man to win the award. In 2001, he received an Honorary Award from the Academy. 

April 14, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States from 1861 until his death and was president of the country during the American Civil War, most famous for his Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863 and the Gettysburg Address delivered in November of that year. A mere five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to the Union and the war was ended, Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. while attending a performance of the comedy “Our American Cousin.” He died in the morning of the following day at age 56. Booth was a notable actor and a Confederate sympathizer. He was killed while avoiding capture on April 26, 1865.

April 15, 1452: Renaissance icon Leonardo da Vinci was born near Vinci, Republic of Florence.

Remembered as the Renaissance’s most exemplary figure, Da Vinci was an artist, architect, engineer and scientist. He was born to unmarried parents and was raised on his father’s estate with all the benefits of a legitimate son. His father apprenticed him to an artist when he was 15, defining his future career. He did not study advanced mathematics until he was 30 years old, but his mechanical ideas and scientific inquiries were years ahead of their time. He studied human anatomy and sketched plans for a flying machine, amongst other inventions and scientific observations on a variety of subjects. Da Vinci is perhaps best known for his paintings “The Last Supper,” currently on display in Milan, Italy and “Mona Lisa”, currently displayed in Paris, France. Da Vinci died of a stroke on May 2, 1519, in Amboise, France at 67 years old. 

April 16, 1972: Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari died aged 72 years old.

Kawabata was born on June 11, 1899, in Osaka, Japan. He was orphaned at a young age and was raised in the country by his maternal grandfather. The tragedies of his childhood are reflected in his melancholic writings. He studied at the Tokyo Imperial University from 1920 to 1924 and made his debut as a writer with a short story in 1927. In the following decades, his popularity grew and he was one of Japan’s leading authors by the 1940s. He joined the Art Academy of Japan in 1953 and received international recognition for his work. His most famous works include “Yukiguni (Snow Country)” (1948) and “Koto (The Old Capital)” (1962). Kawabata received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, becoming the first Japanese citizen to do so. He committed suicide in 1972 following the death of a close friend.

April 17, 1695: Mexican poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz died aged 46 years old. 

Remembered as Mexico’s most notable female literary figure, Juana Ramirez de Asbaje was born on Nov. 12, 1648, in colonial Mexico, known as New Spain. As a young woman, she joined an order of Carmelite nuns, but eventually left due to its strict discipline. In 1669, she joined an order of Hieronymite nuns, where she had the freedom to read, write and meet with various writers, including the first Mexican Journalist Juan Ignacio de Castorena y Ursula. Following her controversial “Carta atenagorica (Athenagoric Letter)” in 1690, her popularity grew and she faced much animosity. She was criticized for being a woman daring to speak her mind and faced judgment from the Church and her fellow nuns, who had never approved of her studies. Inez de la Cruz was made to recant and print a retraction of her writings in 1662 and turned in all her books, scientific and musical instruments to be auctioned off by the convent. Alongside her possessions, her personal funds were also seized by Church authorities, who sought to isolate and silence her. She died in 1695 after an epidemic struck the convent. In her final writings from a few months before her death, Inez de la Cruz wrote that she considered herself the worst person that had existed in the world and begged for the forgiveness of God. Today, she is honored as one of Mexico’s best poets and early feminist figures.