Fifty years ago last night, the humdrum of what appeared to be another routine Apollo mission to the moon was forever changed by five words spoken by Commander Jim Lovell.
“Houston, we have a problem”.
And so began the saga of Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. There was no way they would follow in the footsteps of Apollo 11’s Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, nor Apollo 12’s Bean, Conrad and Gordon. Apollo 11 went to the moon in July 1969, with Armstrong and Aldrin setting foot on its surface on 20 July. Four months later, Apollo 12 took the same path.
As an aside, it would be Dick Gordon’s last space flight; twenty-six months later, he became the Executive Vice President and General Manager of the New Orleans Saints. Gordon was obviously smarter than the man who hired him, Saints owner John Mecom, and the head coach Gordon was inheriting, J.D. Roberts, but Gordon was in over his head against the likes of Jim Finks in Minnesota, Carroll Rosenbloom with the Rams, Al Davis in Oakland, the Rooney sin Pittsburgh, and Donald Francis Shula in south Florida.
Enough football. Back to Lovell, Haise and Swigert. Landing on the moon was out of the question; the new question was simply if they would live or die.
The first three and half months of the 1970s were carrying on the same deadly legacy as the last few months of the 1960s.
Following Apollo 11, ]Hurricane Camille bulldozed much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast the same weekend as Woodstock, killing 256 over five states. Three and half months later came the infamous Altamont Free Concert in northern California, where 18-year old druggie Meredith Hunter was stabbed by Hell’s Angel Alan Passarro, the latter claiming self-defense because he and his fellow Angels were scared the former would attack Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones during their performance.
Less than six days before Apollo 13 lifted off, four members of the California Highway Patrol were shot to death by snipers near Los Angeles. And three weeks after Lovell radioed the Johnson Space Center, four students died at Kent State (fortunately for football fans from coast to coast, one of them was not Nick Saban, then a freshman on the Golden Flashes football team).
The launch of Apollo 13 on 11 April was covered by the three networks, but other than updates from Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds, there was no special coverage. The night of Lovell’s transmission, the networks were in regular programming (“Here’s Lucy” on CBS; “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on NBC and a horrendous TV movie on ABC), but Cronkite, Brinkley and Reynolds scurried back to their anchor chairs and updated the viewing public.
The mayday came after an explosion occurred in a liquid oxygen tank on board the command module. It turns out the tank was seriously damaged when it was dropped in preparation for Apollo 10. The tank for Apollo 10 was replaced, and the damaged tank was repaired and placed aboard Apollo 13.
It should not have been. It should have simply been disposed of. However, in 1969 and ’70, the cost of simply replacing the tank may have been too prohibitive to not to try and salvage it.
The damaged tank could only handle 28 volts, compared to 65 volts if the tank were in optimal condition. When temperatures spiked to approximately 185 degrees Celsius (365 degrees Fahrenheit), the internal wiring in the tank melted. When Swigert flipped a switch to stir the cryogenic tanks, the defective one exploded.
Lovell, Haise and Swigert were now on their own, more than 320,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) from earth. Mission Control was rendered useless.
The only hope was to use the lunar module, which Lovell and Haise would have used to land on the moon while Swigert circled above in the service module (the same way Collins did for Armstrong and Aldrin during Apollo 11, and Gordon for Bean and Conrad during Apollo 12), to fly back to earth.
Lovell had to figure out how to guide the lunar module with the service module attached, a totally different animal compared to what he and Haise would have experieneced landing on the moon.
As the trio neared earth on 17 April, they moved back into the damaged service module to prepare for splashdown. Originally, it was believed it would splash down in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Australia, but the trajectory was improved and it splashed at the original destination in the south Pacific.
I learned about Apollo 13 in sixth grade science. Two years later, an episode of ABC’s “The Wonder Years” featured the Apollo 13 crisis as a central plot point. Norma Arnold (Alley Mills) is up late after husband Jack (Dan Lauria) and children Karen (Olivia d’Abo), Wayne (Jason Hervey) and Kevin (Fred Savage) had gone to bed. Just as Kevin walks into the kitchen where Norma is watching television, and Frank Reynolds pops onto the screen with a “special report”. Later in the week, Kevin enters a church and finds Norma praying for the astronauts. The astronauts’ safe return also seemingly eases any tension between Norma and Jack. Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) sat out this episode.
The three men aboard Apollo 13 never returned to space. The Apollo program ended in December 1972, and it would be over eight years before the first space shuttle launch in 1981.
Lovell, still alive and well at 92, retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy shortly after Apollo 13. His book “Lost Moon” served as the script for the 1995 blockbuster film “Apollo 13”, with Tom Hanks portraying Lovell.
I know of a few people who are not enamored with Lovell.
In August 1999, Lovell was as guest of the Chicago Cubs during a nationally televised game vs. the Houston Astros. Lovell harshly criticized a group of umpires who lost their jobs when they followed Richie Phillips’ dreadful strategy to resign the previous month. The interview, conducted by ESPN announcers John Miller and Joe Morgan, was seen by millions from coast to coast.
Two of the umpires working that night’s game, the infamous Eric Gregg and Paul Nauert, lost their jobs three and a half weeks later. Jerry Crawford, the crew chief for that night’s game, didn’t lose his job, but he was Richie Phillips’ best friend, and I’m certain he won’t shed a tear when Lovell finally slips the surly bonds of this earth and touches the face of God, as Ronald Reagan once put it.
Haise, still alive at 86, was scheduled to fly on Apollo 19, but his number didn’t come up, since Apollo 17 was the last. He was recruited for the space shuttle program, but he got tired of the delays.
Swigert turned to politics in the late 1970s after leaving NASA. His first run for office failed, as he lost the 1978 Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Colorado to U.S. Rep. Bill Armstrong, who went on to win the general election and serve two terms.
In early 1982, Swigert announced he would run for U.S. Representative from Colorado’s 6th district, a seat which the Centennial State gained from reapportionment following the 1980 census.
Before Swigert could worry about winning in November, he had to beat cancer, which manifested itself in a tumor in his right nasal passage. He finished radiation treatment in June 1982, but two months later, cancer came back in his bone marrow.
Swigert stayed in the election and won with 64 percent of the vote, becoming the third ex-astronaut to win election to Congress, with the others serving in the Senate.
The first was John Glenn, the living legend who represented Ohio from 1975-1998; the second was Harrison Schmitt, who represented New Mexico from 1977-82. Ironically, the same day Swigert was elected, Schmitt lost his seat to Jeff Bingaman.
Sadly for Swigert, he never took the oath on Capitol Hill. He died 27 December in the same wing of Georgetown University Hospital where Vince Lombardi succumbed to colon cancer 12 years earlier. Swigert was only 51.
Apollo 13 may never have reached its intended destination. However, the courage demonstrated by James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert will continue to serve as a beacon of hope, especially poignant given what’s happening right now, 50 years after Lovell radioed Houston.