A Conversation with Jim Lovell, part 2: Looking Back

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Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell was awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum foundation last week, and while humbled to receive the award, Lovell said he really is just an ordinary person. “I was just at the right place at the right time with the right credentials; there was nothing so extra special about me that got me where I am.”

But those in attendance at a reception to unveil a portrait of Lovell which will hang at the presidential library in Springfield, Illinois said Lovell embodies the intersection of heroism and legacy.


Lovell speaking at a reception in his honor at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Image: Nancy Atkinson

“NASA had a leader at the exact moment they needed it,” said Richard K. Davis, Chair, President and CEO of US Bancorp, who introduced the former Apollo astronaut at the reception. “With the help of many, Lovell and his crew created the outrageous but amazing solution to plot Apollo 13 back home. NASA found they had a cool, calm, competent leader, a hero who took this crew and a nation from ‘Houston we have a problem’ to America, we have a miracle.

Davis said one of his all-time favorite quotes comes from Lovell: “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful you need to be a person who makes things happen.”

Earlier in the week, Lovell talked with members of the media about his life and his thoughts on NASA’s current budget situation. You can read part one of the interview here, and following is the continuation of the conversation with Jim Lovell, where he talks about some of his memories of his flights to space, and what it took for him to realize that Apollo 13 was more than just a failure:

We’re coming up to almost the 40th anniversary of the last person who landed on the Moon—what are your thoughts about that?

Lovell: It is a rather sad remembrance. I think it is an end of an era. I think the anniversaries will end—we probably won’t get together much anymore. We should look ahead to have a space program that everyone can be proud of, regardless of what it ends up to be. Sometimes we live too much in the past. But the future is here.

Why did you decide to become an astronaut?

Lovell: When I was in high school I was interested in both astronomy and rockets. There was a fellow I admired, the father of modern rocketry named Robert Goddard. I really wanted to be a rocket engineer. So I wrote to the secretary of the American Rocket Society, and asked how I could become one. He told me there was no school at that time that offered that type of study specifically, but I should take mechanics and mathematics, thermodynamics and either go to MIT or CalTech.

But my father had died earlier that year and I didn’t have the money to go to either of those places, so I gave that up. But I did apply to get an ROTC scholarship and was accepted. I went to the University of Wisconsin for two years and won an appointment to the Naval Academy. I went there for four years and got into the Navy and became a naval aviator – which was a second goal for me, as my uncle had been a naval aviator and had regaled me with all his stories. Then I went to test pilot school for the Navy. And when NASA was asking for astronauts, it seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity: here was a marrying of flight and rockets all coming together for me as if I had planned it all this time.

You couldn’t have seen a more disappointed person when I wasn’t selected for the first original seven astronauts. I made it to the final 32 candidates. But then, for round two, I was selected.

Universe Today: What are your favorite memories from your four flights to space?

Lovell: Apollo 8 was the most inspirational flight to me, and I hope it brought a message back to the Earth of what we have.

The most impressive sight I saw was not the moon, not the far side that we never see, or the craters. It was Earth. The Earth was the most impressive sight. As we came around the far side of the Moon and saw the Earth come up above the horizon, we could see the only color in our part of the Universe. The blues of the oceans, the white clouds, the tans, the pinks. I could put my thumb up and hide the Earth completely. Then it dawned on me how completely insignificant we are. Everything I had ever known – my family, my country, my world – was behind my thumb.

So there in the distance was this small body orbiting a rather normal sun, — nothing so particular about it — tucked away on the outer edge of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

I thought how fortunate we are to live on this small body, with everyone – all those ‘astronauts’ — living together like on a starship, with limited resources. So, in a way that was just like Apollo 13, and we have to learn to live and work together. And I hope we could bring that message back to the people of Earth.

But I also have to say one of my other favorite memories was from Apollo 13: the splashdown! Seeing the parachutes, feeling the capsule swaying in the ocean, and having one of the divers come to knock on the window was a great feeling. It was pretty impressive, too.

Jim Lovell speaking at the museum, in front of a replica of the White House. Image: Nancy Atkinson

What was scarier, the explosion of Apollo 13 or seeing the service module after it was jettisoned and wondering if the heat shield was still intact?

Lovell: The low point was the explosion – which we didn’t realize was an explosion until I saw the oxygen leaking outside the spacecraft, and saw from our instruments that we would be completely out of oxygen. This also meant we would be out of electrical power, and because we used the electrical power to control the rocket engine, we also lost the propulsion system. We knew we were losing the command module, but that was the only thing that had the heat shield to get us back to Earth.

As we were going through and solving all the problems one by one, when we came back towards Earth and jettisoned the Service Module and saw the explosion had blown out the entire side panel, we wondered about that heat shield which was right behind us, if the explosion had cracked it. But there was nothing we could do at that point. There was no solution. You just crossed your fingers. Once we entered the atmosphere we just had to hope the heat shield was intact. And it was.

Lovell and museum officials at the unveiling of a portrait of Lovell that will hang in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Image: Nancy Atkinson


You went from the space program to the tugboat business. What was that like?

After I retired from NASA and the Navy, and I was looking for something to do. I went to the advanced management program at Harvard and learned enough about business to be dangerous. Some friends of ours had a tugboat company and he offered me a job leading the company. Since I was a Navy officer — which has something to do with ships and water – I thought I could handle that. I was in that about five years. Then I got into the telecommunications business, which was fortunate timing because the deregulation of AT&T was just around the corner. We sold digital systems, where AT&T had analog systems, and we could sell the systems instead of how it was done the past where customers leased equipment from the phone company.

As you sit in this museum and library, what are your thoughts about studying the past?

This library and museum is not just something to look back on the era of Lincoln, it is an education for all ages coming through here of how we can keep the country together in the future. At the various museums around the country, like at the Air and Space museum, we show what people have done in the past in spaceflight. Here, and there, we show how people are committed to do things. Lincoln was committed to preserve the country. This type of an institution gives young people the chance to learn about those who were committed to make our country strong, and it should give everyone hope about our future.

You didn’t write the book “Lost Moon” for over 20 years after the Apollo 13 mission. What took so long?

Lovell: When we first got back from Apollo 13, the three of us astronauts said, this was a pretty unusual flight, so we should write a book about this. So, we said, we’re going to get together and write something. Well, as it often happens, as time went on, we all had jobs to do and life got busy for all of us. Jack Swigert went into politics in Colorado, and then, of course, he passed away. Fred Haise went into the aerospace business with Grumman, and I went into the telephone business. But just after I retired I got a call from a young man (Jeffrey Kluger) who said he had never written a book before, but he was a science writer for the Discover Magazine.

To make a long story short, I liked the way he wrote and we got together and wrote the book about 22 years after Apollo 13. But you have to remember that Apollo 13 was a failure. I mean, the only experiment that was completed was really done by the mission control team when they maneuvered the third stage of our booster to hit the Moon so that the Apollo 12 seismometers could pick up the results of the hit to learn something about the lunar surface. So there were no other successful experiments. The only thing we were doing was trying to figure out how to get home.

So, for years after we got back, I was frustrated. I wanted to land on the Moon like the other crews had, but I didn’t. But as we started to write the book, I realized that in its initial mission, yes, the flight was a failure. But as we wrote and I found out more about how hard the mission control team worked to get us back, I realized it really was a triumph in the way people handled a crisis: good leadership at all levels at NASA, teamwork that was generated because of that leadership, the use of imagination and initiative to figure out how to get us home by using just what we had on board, the perseverance of people who kept on going when it looked like initially that we didn’t have a chance. Jules Bergman (ABC science reporter) only gave us a 10 per cent chance, and my wife never forgave him for that!

But this is why Apollo 13 went from being a failure to a triumph.

The movie is very accurate, by the way. Ron Howard followed the real story very well. All the incidents were true except for the argument between Haise and Swigert, but Ron Howard had to figure out a way to portray the tension we all felt, and decided to do it in that way.

Previous winners of the Lincoln Leadership Prize are archbishop Desmond Tutu and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For more information about the Lincoln Prize and the Presidential Museum and Library, see the ALPLM website.

A Conversation with Apollo’s Jim Lovell, part 1: NASA’s Future

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Springfield, Illinois is a quiet, historic town that clings fervently to its association with Abraham Lincoln. If you want Civil War era history and desire to know anything about Lincoln, you can find it in Springfield, especially at the outstanding new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Musuem.

So, it’s not often that an astronaut shows up, especially a former astronaut with his own unique kind of history such as Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell. But Lovell is in town this week, as he was awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize, an honor given by the museum’s foundation to “exceptional men and women for a lifetime of service in the Lincoln tradition.” Still a commanding figure at age 82, Lovell chatted eloquently and easily with members of the press yesterday, and since I live in Springfield and am a member of the press, you can bet I was there. It was an honor to be able to talk with him.

Lovell toured the museum earlier in the day, and said, “It is a magnificent museum and library dedicated to one of our greatest presidents, and every American should have the chance to come here in order to get a good idea of what our country stands for and what the people in the past, like Abraham Lincoln, have done to make it a great country.”

Lovell said he was very honored and humbled to be the recipient of the Lincoln Prize and said what he has learned from Lincoln over the years is commitment. “Commitment is necessary if you are going to do anything great, like Lincoln, who committed himself to stand fast,” he said. “I enjoy the aspects of what the Lincoln Prize recognizes, and to be a recipient, well, it has a very special place in my heart.”

Of course, readers of Universe Today are familiar with Lovell’s history: a test pilot in the Navy who applied to become one of the original seven Mercury astronauts (“back when boosters were blowing up every other day at Cape Canaveral,” Lovell said). He didn’t make initial selection, but two years later when NASA needed more astronauts, Lovell was chosen. He flew two missions for Gemini, then Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

Lovell called Apollo 8 the pinnacle of his career. “I am really proud to be one of three people that flew and circled the Moon on Christmas Eve in 1968,” he said, “and we were able to relay back — not to just the people of the United States, but the whole world — something positive after a rather dismal year.”

At the museum Lovell found out that the person who portrayed him in the movie “Apollo 13” – Tom Hanks – is a distance relative of Abraham Lincoln, “so I guess he had a bit of Lincoln in him too, and he was a great character to work with.”

Nancy Atkinson with Jim Lovell.

Following is part of the conversation with Lovell:

On the topic of commitment, do you think the United States is committed to human spaceflight?

Lovell: My personal opinion is that I believe the US has a very strong committment to continue our space exploration. Unfortunately, our present administration doesn’t believe that. The proposed NASA budget for 2011 eliminates the forward efforts of manned spaceflight. It goes for general research and other things. I don’t think they actually remember that NASA was formed to explore space. Consequently there is a possibility that we might be number three or four in space exploration in the future. As you know there about 2 or 3 shuttle flights left. After that the US has no access to the International Space Station, which all our taxpayers have put a lot of money into. If this plan goes forward, the only access in the future will be the Russians and they have indicated that the cost per astronaut per flight is about 60 million dollars, which is a pretty high ticket price to get there.

I think Congress sees the danger of the present proposal of NASA’s 2011 budget and based on that they are now in session both in the House and Senate to try and modify the President’s proposal to continue in some aspect manned space efforts to design vehicles to get up to the International Space Station, sometime in the near future. Hopefully Congress will get together and come up with a compromise. I personally feel the President has so many things weighing on his mind right now that he will go along with Congress’ proposal and it will be better than the initial budget that he proposed to the American people some months ago.

Universe Today: Do you have confidence in the commercial space companies that could bring people to space?

That’s a good question, because part of the new proposal is putting efforts and money into developing commercial spaceflight. Now, you have to look at what the definition of commercial is. In my mind, commercial is when an entrepreneur sees an enterprise to develop a launch system and spacecraft to get into space. He gets his own resources, does the development to build and test his system, makes it man- rated and then proposes his vehicle and system to NASA, or to the FAA if he wants to use it for tourism to space. This is what I consider commercial.

Now, a government program is where the government puts all the money into it and develops and builds it. Within the government, we have the free enterprise system, the private sector where we have contractors to do that. Boeing, Lockheed, General Dyamics, and so on. These people have 40 or 50 years in the development of space artifacts, launch systems, spacecraft. To put government money into a new system for unproven vehicles is today, a waste of money.

Jim Lovell. Credit: Nancy Atkinson

Boeing is now thinking of going into commercial work. They have the expertise to do that. But not some of the newer people like SpaceX, although they did build a nice booster that made one flight. But if they could build it on their own and make it man-rated and have a suitable launch to system to go the ISS, more power to them. I’m sure NASA would contract with them. But we have limited amount of money to spend for space activities, and it seems to me the best place to put it would be with the people who have the knowledge and expertise and the history of what it takes to build a launch system.

There are a few companies that are looking at suborbital flights, such as Richard Branson’s company (Virgin Galactic) who wants to expand what Burt Rutan has done to give people 5 or 6 minutes of weightlessness. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com is another (Blue Origin). They are really entrepreneurs. If they can build their vehicles and systems and they think there is a market for tourism, then that is the way to go.

I’m all for commercialization. A lot of times people compare this to the work that the NACA did to help the airline industry – to develop wing designs and things like that—but the aviation industry in the early days saw a good market, because they knew either commercial flights or military vehicles would provide a market, so there was an opening there.

If you look at commercial space companies, as far as orbital, you have to ask what can people do there? There’s only one place to go in orbit, that’s the ISS. The Russians are already there. The Chinese are talking about building a space station, but there is no other manned market for commercial orbital spaceflight. Now there are a lot of unmanned commercial operations: satellites for the military, GPS, communications, weather – there’s a lot that can happen there and can happen in the future. I think the Boeing vehicles have made over 80 commercial flights putting satellites in orbit.

But low Earth orbit for people – where do you want to go? Unless you have tourists that want to go around the Earth or go to the ISS, there really is not a market, except for the market of the government to put astronauts up in the ISS.

What is the benefit to be gained from manned spaceflight that would outweigh the costs in these tough economic times?

Lovell: That answer is the same as it was back in the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
One, is the technologies developed. It used to be the only way there was technology development was if there was a war. When NASA came along the technology it developed spilled over in the public sector and you can see what has happened today, especially in the information industry.

The second thing you have to remember is that there was a spur of education. When Russia put up Sputnik, everyone asked how they did it and why we didn’t. And this spilled over into education. I can’t tell you how many people who have told me that when they were young they followed the space program and that affected their choice to go into engineering or science.

Then, there is idea of what we can do as the human race. The world is getting smaller. We can’t do things in space much on our own anymore, and so we have to work together. We now have an International Space Station, 16 countries working together in a program that is not controversial at all. It works. We’re getting to know other countries. We have a common bond.

As of now China is working on their own, but if they accomplish what they want to do, they might join the consortium of the other countries working together.

Now, the idea of manned spaceflight, even though if you pin me to wall, and ask, “OK, we want to go to Mars—why? What will we do there?” Honestly, I can’t tell you. I don’t know.

But I have to tell you one thing. Somebody is going to go to Mars. The technology is here. It is just the time effort and money to make that a possibilty. The original Constellation program that we had carefully devised and developed over years to build a vehicle to get us up to the space station because the shuttle would be retired, and then build the Ares boosters to work our way eventually get us back to the Moon, using that infrastructure to fully explore it – we’ve only touched a small part of the Moon so far – and then after years of developing that to eventually get the architecture and infrastructure. That was the whole plan. It wasn’t a plan to get to Mars in 10 years or 15 years, it was plan to get to one spot, and work your way to the next spot. And there would probably be a consortium of countries working with us. And that was the whole plan that the President shot down. He mentioned something about someday we’d get a big booster. When? You have to have a program to develop the technology. He wants to develop technology and then figure out what kind of program to have. That’s the wrong approach. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

If money was no object and the President said we could go either to the Moon or Mars, what would you recommend?

Lovell: I would tell him to go back to the program we had developed for Constellation. Now, there has been some controversy, even among my own compatriots. Some say we’ve been to the Moon- we’ve done that, so let’s go on to Mars, or let’s go on to an asteroid. That’s all well said and done.

We were extremely fortunate in the 1960’s to develop Apollo and to have the accomplishments we did. I was amazed when I heard President Kennedy announce in 1961 that we were going to go to the Moon by the end of the decade. I said, that’s impossible. So if I say that I don’t know what we’d do if we go to Mars, I might be sadly mistaken and someone might get there before we ever thought it was possible.
But I think you have to do it step by step, to develop it and then go.

Part 2: More with Lovell about Apollo 8 and 13, what it took for Lovell to realize that Apollo 13 wasn’t a complete failure.