astronauts, James Lovell, NASA

(March 25, 1928)

Jim Lovell has the unique distinction of being the only person to have flown to the moon twice without landing on it. John Young – often referred to as “the astronauts’ astronaut” – and Gene Cernan – the last person to walk on the moon – were the others.

Nevertheless Jim Lovell’s career is an illustrious one, and he was the first person to fly in space four times. Narrowly missing out on being one of the Mercury 7, NASA selected him as part of the Next Nine. His first mission was pilot of Gemini 7 under the command of Frank Borman. Evaluating the effects of long duration flights on astronauts was the mission objective. Their 14 days in space set an endurance record, designed to mimic the length of the coming Apollo lunar missions.

Lovell’s second mission was as commander of Gemini 12 with Buzz Aldrin as pilot. Gemini 12 was the final mission of the Gemini program. Its main objective was to master EVAs, or spacewalks, which had proven problematic in earlier attempts. Prior to the mssion, the cumulative total time of American space walks was 396 minutes across five EVAs. By the end of the mission Buzz Aldrin had completed 330 minutes over three. This set the stage for the work to come with Apollo.

Lovell’s third mission was as command module pilot of Apollo 8. With Borman as commander and Bill Anders as lunar module pilot, the crew of Apollo 8 were the first to fly in the massive Saturn V. They were also the first people ever to leave low earth orbit and travel to the moon.

NASA iniitially appointed Lovell as mission commander of Apollo 14. But given concerns about the readiness of Al Shepherd to undertake a moon mission as commander of Apollo 13 (after several years of being grounded) they swapped the crews over. When asked if he and his crew were willing to trade places Lovell replied, “Sure, what could possibly be the difference between Apollo 13 and Apollo 14?”

The drama of Apollo 13 is now the stuff of legend, and Hollywood thanks to Tom Hanks portrayal of Lovell in the motion picture based on the events. The phrase “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” is seared into our collective memories and has become a byword for things going wrong. It was first uttered by Jack Swigert following a stir of the cryo tanks during the transit to lunar orbit. A spark had caused an explosion which robbed Apollo 13 of oxygen and electricity. Houston asked them to “say again, please,” and this time Lovell repeated the phrase.

With a landing out of the question the mission objective changed to that of returning the crew to Earth alive. The astronauts had to utilise the LEM as a lifeboat, and establish their crippled ship on a free-return trajectory. With zero room for error they made mutiple manual course corrections to be on target for their reentry corridor. When it became clear their own exhaled CO2 was poisoing the crew, the likelihood of survival appeared slim. NASA engineers and technicians in Houston were tasked with “working the problem”. Flight Director Gene Kranze never said, “Failure is not an option”, but work the problem they did. An ingenious solution based on tearing up flight manuals and using gaffer tape and socks saved their lives.

The free-return trajactory they adopted gave Lovell and his crew the distinction of the record for the furthest from Earth that any humans have ever travelled. Apollo 13 was classified as a “suucessful failure on account of the fact that the crew returned safely home.

Photographed at the Royal Society, London. March 2010.