In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, the word hero gets bandied about far too often. But what other term would you use to describe astronaut James Lovell? A veteran of four spaceflights, his accomplishments paved the way for the first Moon landing and helped define NASA’s can-do attitude.
Now 87, Jim Lovell lives in the Chicago area and still enjoys talking about his days in the Apollo program.
David J. Eicher
In December 1965, he and Frank Borman flew on Gemini 7, where they performed the first rendezvous with another manned spacecraft (Gemini 6A). In November 1966, he teamed with Buzz Aldrin on Gemini 12, the final mission of the Gemini program. But Lovell’s main claim to fame came during the subsequent Apollo program. He served as the command module pilot on Apollo 8 — the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s gravity and orbit the Moon. And he was commander on Apollo 13, which suffered a crippling explosion on its way to the Moon and barely made it safely back to Earth.
Recently, Astronomy Editor David J. Eicher and Senior Editor Richard Talcott interviewed Captain Lovell about his Apollo missions at Lovell’s of Lake Forest, his son’s restaurant in suburban Chicago, before it closed April 12. At 87, he remains every bit as sharp and entertaining as he was during his NASA days, when astronauts were this country’s true heroes.
Astronomy: Apollo 8 was the first of many missions that went to the Moon, and you did a lot of things for the first time. We’re curious what the feeling was like being the first people to ride up on the Saturn 5 and feel the power of the Saturn 5 beneath you compared with your Gemini missions.
Lovell: The Saturn 5 rocket, believe it or not, is actually a better rocket to ride than the Titan of Gemini. In Gemini, the spacecraft was essentially the warhead, and the G-loading on the second stage was almost 8 Gs, but [for] the Saturn 5, the maximum G-loading on the first stage was only about 4Gs, and the trajectory was so programmed that the upper two stages were less than 1G, so it was relatively speaking a nice ride.
Astronomy: We certainly remember how long it took to clear the launchpad.
Lovell: It was very slow when it started to go up.
The crew of Apollo 8
— (left to right) Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman — posed on a simulator at Kennedy Space Center just a month before they took off for the Moon.
All Apollo photos: NASA
Astronomy: It was a shock to see the space shuttle go up so quickly afterward. Did it help with your comfort level on the Apollo 8 mission to have Frank Borman with you since you had flown with him earlier?
Lovell: Yes, Frank and I flew for two weeks on Gemini 7 in a small little container called the Gemini. Some people call it two weeks in the men’s room. Yes, I was a navigator on that flight. I was particularly happy to be on that flight because it was the first time that we’d navigated the entire 240,000 miles [385,000 kilometers] to the Moon. So when I was with [Charles] Lindbergh on the beach watching Apollo 11 lift off, he said, “You know Apollo 8 was almost like my flight across the Atlantic.” First of all, the long distance — all 11 had to do was land. No, it was really exciting.
Astronomy: How easy was it to navigate, sighting the stars through the windows?
Lovell: Well, navigation was pretty good. MIT did the basic design of the engineering. I basically had to look at several stars. Most of my navigation was keeping the platform aligned because that told us our position with respect to the celestial sphere, and that made it possible so we could move from one position to another position if we had to change course for some reason. And it turned out that the people at MIT were very much surprised at how accurate the systems were working to do the job.
Astronomy: What were your thoughts when you became the first people to leave Earth’s gravity behind?
Lovell: It was a unique feeling in many respects. First of all, we were like three school kids looking down on the farside of the Moon when we first went around there. As we saw the Earth, and you’ve all seen pictures of the “Earthrise,” that was perhaps one of the most impressionable parts of the flight. Of course, to be able to navigate all the way to see the Moon as it got bigger and bigger and then the accuracy of the navigation. As we approached the Moon, we put our blunt end forward so we didn’t see the Moon because we had to have our engines ready to slow down and be captured by the Moon’s gravity. The ground was tracking us at this time, and they said that at such and such a time, down to the second, you’ll lose communication with us. By gosh, right on the second, we whipped around the farside and lost communication.
You know the Moon has three different shades. In sunlight, it’s quite bright; in earthshine, it looks like snow outside at nighttime here on Earth; and then there’s the part that has no earthshine, no sunshine — you don’t see a thing. And that’s the only time when all the stars came out then as we were going around that completely darkened part where all the stars had started to shine.
Astronomy: I gather Frank got sick on the way to the Moon. Did that create any concerns on your part that it was something more serious than just a 24-hour thing?
Lovell: Frank got a good case of airsickness. As a matter of fact, almost everybody has a queasy feeling for a while until their stomach gets used to it. It takes about six hours for the average individual. We were perfectly comfortable, Bill [Anders] and I. Basically, since we weren’t going to land on the Moon, there’s no trying to look at what experiments we were going to do, and navigation was really the primary job going all the way to the Moon. And we did that very easily.
Astronomy: How were your preparations for Apollo 8? Did they prepare you for what you actually saw at the Moon, or was it totally different than what you were expecting?
Lovell: Well, when we got word that we weren’t going to do Earth orbit on Apollo 8 but go to the Moon, of course we had to change a lot of things — navigation was the big thing. I went up to MIT to learn all that they were doing at that time. Actually, the training was very good. All the simulator training — there was nothing, I would say, that was a complete surprise to us. We did everything. Things happened as they should. Because I had experience before on two Geminis and so I knew zero gravity to some degree and didn’t have to worry, and Frank was on the other one, and Bill was the only so-called rookie on this particular one. The surprises, of course, not even the Moon, though I mean, I realized from seeing all pictures of the Moon, and studying it, and studying where we’re supposed to be going on the nearside there wasn’t a big surprise. It was all shades of gray as I thought, and up close it’s still all shades of gray.
Astronomy: When you read from the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, was that a joint decision among all three of you, or did one of you come up with that?
Apollo 8 crew members spent just over six days in space, orbiting the Moon 10 times.
Lovell: That’s kind of interesting. When we were doing our trajectory, all of a sudden it dawned on us that the day we were shooting to take off, on the 21st of December, that we would be orbiting the Moon on Christmas Eve. The seasons didn’t really — we didn’t think much about it. When we had the change in the flight and the whole thing, we were so anxious — the month — it could have been any month. We decided, gee, it’s going to be Christmas, what can we say? We’ve got to think about something to say. So we thought, well how about changing the words to “The Night Before Christmas”? That didn’t sound too good. Or how about “Jingle Bells”? No, that was even worse. So we were at an impasse.
We knew a friend who said, “I’ll try and help you. I know a newspaper reporter, and they write all the time, and they usually have a gift of gab about writing things like this. I’ll ask him.” So, he did, and the story I got was the fact that he spent one night trying to figure out what these three people should say. It was going through quite a bit of the evening, and pretty soon, around midnight, his wife came down the stairs and said, “What are you doing?” And he told her the story that he was writing this thing for the Apollo 8 crew. He hadn’t really come up with anything yet. And she said, “Well, you know, that’s simple — why don’t they read from the Old Testament the first 10 verses of Genesis? I mean, it’s an emotional time, sort of a holy time, but Genesis, the first 10 verses, is the structure of most of the world’s religions — especially Christianity, but Judaism and also Islam.” All had their origins somehow from the Old Testament. So that’s what we did. Got it down and put it on fireproof paper, and it was put in the back of the flight manual. That original flight manual and those words are now down at the Adler Planetarium [in Chicago].
Astronomy: When you were on the farside of the Moon and getting ready to come back, did you have any concerns about the rocket firing?
Lovell: I don’t think anyone who makes these Apollo flights thinks about not firing that rocket. Of course, we were the first ones there. And, of course, on the ninth rotation of going around, we did Genesis and things like that and talked about the Moon. But on the 10th one, we started going around, we said, “OK, now is everything ready?” We called back, give us some good words about what you think we should put in the computer, exactly when we should fire it and the whole thing. And, of course, on the farside, Mission Control never knew if it did fire or didn’t fire until we got around the nearside. And, of course, if it didn’t fire, we’d still be in lunar orbit. And if it fired short, we’d have a change of some sort of an orbit — we didn’t know what it was because we sped up — whether we would go out to a long elliptical orbit still around the Moon or what we’d do. And, of course, when we went around and fired absolutely perfectly right on where it should be. And I came around and I said to Mission Control, “Houston, please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Astronomy: You mentioned a little bit earlier about seeing the Earth rise as you were going around the Moon. Did you have any idea after you got back how iconic that image would become and that it’s been called one of the great images in the history of mankind?
Lovell: At the time that the occasion came to take the picture, when the Earth drifted over to my window and I looked at it — Bill was the photographer — and I saw the composition of the Earth with respect to the lunar horizon, I said, “Bill, this is it.” This is the picture. And so, he went ahead and took the pictures. I realized that it was a great picture. And he had a telephoto lens on the camera so that brought the Earth closer, where it was more pronounced and made it actually a much better composition, I think. We took the picture, and, of course, we took lots of pictures so we didn’t know what picture would actually come out — whether the pictures of the Moon on the farside or the Earth in various places. It turns out that was a great picture.
Astronomy: Before we talk more about 13, what did your role entail as backup commander of Apollo 11? What was that experience like for you?
Lovell: Well, I had to train just as much up until the last couple of months as Neil [Armstrong] did to get ready. Of course, I had some previous experience; I was on Apollo 8. So, pretty much the command/service module, I knew that. I just had to study on the lunar module, which I did. The last couple of months, they more or less took over the simulators and did more and more of that work. Back-up crews are usually assigned to get hotel rooms for guests, you know, get the party ready, and all that kind of stuff. As I mentioned before, though, I was the host of Charles Lindbergh up there, and he came to see the takeoff of 11.
For the Apollo 13 mission, Jim Lovell (far right) was joined by “rookies” Fred Haise (left) and Jack Swigert (center).
Astronomy: Can you describe the liftoff of Apollo 13, and how did you feel really heading to the Moon for a second time?
Lovell: I was a lot more comfortable for the liftoff on 13. I had two new rookies with me; this was their first time. Occasionally, they would look at me, and I would tell them what that noise was — you know, when the valves opened up and the fuel started running down toward the main engine, and you could hear that rumble. I told them that. But I was very comfortable on 13 because I knew what to expect, and it was all up until the second stage when the center engine shut down [about two minutes early], and I certainly had to wonder what the story was. This had happened on an unmanned Saturn when we did, and it was due to the engine going divergent on the structure that it was attached to. And we had a safety factor switch to turn it off, so that was very nice in that respect. We wondered whether we had enough fuel to go all the way to the Moon, but we did. We had to burn the third stage engine a little bit longer than we normally would, but still going around the Earth — the third stage still had enough fuel to give us the proper velocity to coast all the way to the Moon, as a matter of fact.
Astronomy: You had to get off of the so-called free-return course.
Astronomy: This was your second trip to the Moon, your fourth flight into space overall. Were you used to the sights, the sounds, the smells, the stars how they appeared? Was it a familiar experience for you?
Lovell: Yeah, to me, it was very familiar. They all came back; even the smells came back. There was no problem, and, of course, when we got off the free-return course, that kind of worried us a little bit because that put us in a position whereby we wouldn’t be able to get back into a safe landing on the Earth because that corridor is very, very narrow, and it can hit the atmosphere again. But we had to do that to get the Sun in the proper position so we could see the shadows of the rocks and boulders on the lunar surface. Because there is no atmosphere on the Moon, if you look straight down at noontime, it all washes out. You don’t see anything. So you had to have shadows to get a good perspective — a 3-D picture of where you’re going.
Astronomy: And you saw a gaseous outflow, and you knew that putting together with the oxygen tank …
Lovell: When I saw gas escaping from the rear of the spacecraft, I knew that there was only certain different types of gas in that place — one was hydrogen and one was oxygen. We’re going to be in deep trouble.
Astronomy: You had a bit of a sinking feeling. How did you hold your composure in such an extraordinary and unprecedented moment of crisis?
Lovell: Well, if you want to get in this business, you better be optimistic. I was a test pilot, and I had problems with airplanes before where we had to suddenly figure out what to do. I wasn’t too sure at the time of the explosion that we were in danger until we saw the oxygen leaking. Then, we just had to figure out what to do. I thought our chances were probably pretty low at that time of getting back because not knowing exactly what the problem was back there — did we lose two oxygen tanks, or did we just lose one? When we saw the two fuel cells had died, and of course when we lost the oxygen, we then knew the other fuel cell was going to die because it uses oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity and water — that put us in a very tight spot.
Astronomy: And you were 90 hours and 200,000 miles from home at that point.
Lovell: We were 90 hours and about 200,000 miles from home because we had to go around the Moon, and our lunar module, which was eventually used as a lifeboat to get home, was designed to only last 45 hours and support two people. Counting the crew — there were three people there.
Astronomy: Is it true that Mission Control at first believed that the problem may have simply been electromagnetism from a solar flare?
Lovell: Yeah. Mission Control’s first thought when they saw these — because they read on their consoles the same information I read on my instrument panels. They get it through telemetry. So when the explosion first occurred and they started seeing some of these odd numbers and everything going off on the instrument panels, they said this all can’t be true because we have reliability to the 4 or 5 nines. We’ve got redundancy. We have more than one — we’ve got two of this and three of that. How could they lose everything at one time? It had to be a communications problem. A solar flare or something like that must have interrupted the telemetry coming down because we were outside the Van Allen Belts at that time. And so this must have been the case.
Astronomy: It was really an experimental process.
Lovell: Quick learning.
Astronomy: Yes, very quick learning. Mission Control frantically worked on plans and communicated with you to test plans for a return. How did this sort of communications and relationship go? You were working on the immediate crisis, and they were contemplating and communicating with you. What was the dynamic talking to them and sort of working through it in that first period?
To purify the air of carbon monoxide in the lunar module, the Apollo 13 crew had to modify the command module’s lithium hydroxide canisters using duct tape, plastic, a piece of cardboard, and an old sock.
Lovell: Well, at the beginning, it was very close. The one thing that we always had was the radio, which was very good. We lost the Omni antenna, but we did have the side antennas when the thing was rolling. And, of course, they were the ones that got us back on the free-return course while we were still altogether with the two spacecraft married together to get us back so we could get back into that corridor to make a safe landing. They were also involved with the speed-up. When we found out where we were, how much time we had to get home, we realized, even though we got back on the free-return course, that we would not have enough electrical power. That’s the most important part of our consumables — to go around the Moon and get home safely before the power died — and we had no controllability of the command module when we come back in. So they figured out how to speed up the spacecraft first of all as we approached the Moon so that when we went around it, we could light the lunar module engine and speed up to go back home again. They did a very good job.
The one thing that I sort of complained about [was that] they had a hard time trying to figure out the final power-up of the command module — because it was dead. The guidance system had never been intended to shut it off for the entire flight. We never shut off the guidance system. We keep it going all the time. We didn’t have the power [to keep it warm]. And so they were trying to figure out the best way of powering up and when to power up the command module to do the job.
They did a very good job, though, because we were being poisoned by our own exhalation because the lithium hydroxide canisters were designed to remove only carbon dioxide exhalation from two people for two days and we were three people for four days. It meant that we had to take a square canister, which had plenty of room in the command module, and sort of rig it into the environmental system of the lunar module that used round canisters that went into round holes, and you can’t put a square canister into a round hole, obviously, so we ended up using duct tape, plastic, a piece of cardboard, and an old sock to sort of jury-rig this square canister on the outside of the lunar module system to remove the carbon dioxide. They did a very excellent job and it kept us from being poisoned.
Because two of the three Apollo 13 crew members had never been to the Moon before, they insisted on still capturing images of the lunar surface despite their perilous situation.
Astronomy: And you had not only low oxygen and the high carbon dioxide, but very low water, as well, to deal with.
Lovell: That’s right. And water was used to, of course, cool electronic systems, too. And that was why coming in just before we hit the atmosphere — they were tracking us — that they found out we were also too shallow again and had to make that maneuver because we had turned off the guidance system — our normal use is to get the proper positioning — and had to use the terminator of the Earth as a guidance along with a gun sight we had to put the engine in the proper position to make a final maneuver to get back into that 2° pie-shaped wedge that was necessary to make a safe landing.
Astronomy: How ill did Fred get on your return?
Lovell: Fred got a urinary infection. Due to what we call a boaterman’s friend, we wear those things if we don’t want to urinate in a regular conical tube. That was misfortunate on his part. He got quite sick just before we landed. In fact, fortunately, we did land, and the ship took good care of him.
Astronomy: What was the feeling of reentry through Earth’s atmosphere like?
Lovell: Well, the feeling was, as far as the spacecraft performing, it appeared just like it should because we managed to get all the power up on the command module again and with that we got the guidance system back up again. We realigned the guidance system — something which we learned on Apollo 8. One thing on Apollo 8 I forgot to mention, I inadvertently lost the position of guidance in my computer by thinking that the spacecraft — I punched in the wrong program in the guidance system and put it back down on the launch pad straight up instead of where it was in position in space. And I had to do a manual realignment. Very, very fortunate because in Apollo 13, we shut off the command module guidance system. And so we had to realign that guidance system with respect to the stars again so we’d have the proper attitude to come back in with respect to the atmosphere. So something like fate, that comes in handy.
Astronomy: One final question on a somewhat lighter note, if you will. What was the experience like of being in the film Apollo 13 and appearing in it, as well as your association with the making of the film?
Lovell: With respect to the movie, I enjoyed being in it. It was a cameo spot. Actually, [Director] Ron Howard came up to me and said, “Would you want to be the admiral?” There was an admiral on board the regular ship. I said, “No, I retired as a captain — I’ll dig out my old uniform, and I’ll look at the ribbons that he had, and I’ll put those on.” So it duplicated him. So, that’s the way we’ll go.
The Apollo 13 crew members — (left to right) Fred Haise, Jim Lovell, and Jack Swigert — could finally breathe a sigh of relief as they stepped onto the deck of their recovery ship, the USS Iwo Jima.