Meeting Capt. Jim Lovell

Meeting Capt. Jim Lovell

Allow me to be frank from the commencement. The measure of meeting Capt. James (Jim) Lovell, the man who was the world’s most-travelled astronaut up until the Skylab space station’s first crew in 1973, flying into space four times during the Gemini and Apollo programs, is one of only three astronauts to go to the Moon twice, and was the Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970; can only be measured by mentioning that my son (3 years old at the time of writing) possesses the name ‘Lovell’ as his middle name.

But, I digress. Back in October 2014, having gained accreditation to shoot at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida (KSC), I set out on a personal assignment to shoot “The Suits” made available to me; Alan Shepard’s Apollo 14 A7-L pressure suit, Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 suit, Neil Armstrong’s A7LB suit, Gus Grissom’s Mercury spaceflight suit, and  Capt. Lovell’s Apollo 13 flight suit. Back in 2014, I hadn’t yet heard of an organisation called ‘Space Lectures’ which offered opportunities to meet astronauts in the UK, who are a non profit-making run by volunteers who have a passion for space exploration, and who support UNICEF & Fior Di Loto Foundation, but I would soon.

Upon my return to the UK, I immediately went about working on publicising my NASA portfolio, and with a use of some rather specific hashtagging, my social network took-off. It was at this point I was directed by a number of twitter followers to Space Lectures, who had just hosted an event with astronaut Eileen Collins, who herself had been individually proceeded over the years by Fred Haise, Ken Mattingly, Alan Bean, Al Worden, Charlie Duke, Edgar Mitchell, and Buzz Aldrin. And their next guest had just been announced, Capt. Jim Lovell.

The Lovell lecture had already sold out and I thought nothing more of it. But, Space Lectures had subsequently seen my ‘Apollo 13 flight suit’ shot and I soon received and email from them. It stated that the night before the lecture, they host a gala dinner for their guest speaker, followed by an auction, and having seen my photograph, would I be interested in donating the shot with 100% of the proceeds raised from its sale going to UNICEF. Of course I immediately said yes and over the course of early 2015, some staggering moments that I will never forget began to happen. Capt. Lovell had seen my photograph.

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Almost a year to the day from my visit the KSC, on Halloween 2015, such was the demand for Capt. Lovell that during his visit to the UK, his hosts; Space Lectures, based in Pontefract, Yorkshire, held an unprecedented second lecture with Capt. Lovell and I had been offered a single ticket. The gala dinner on the previous evening had been a resounding success, and in its build-up, to my total and utter astonishment I had been sent a photograph of Capt. Lovell not only holding my photograph, but he had chosen to sign it.

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The lecture was preceded by a photo session where I had my photograph taken with the Capt. Lovell himself; where I had the honour of shaking his hand and we briefly discussed my donated shot and his liking of it, before I thought saw the queue growing behind me, and I rejoined the crowd as a member of the audience and we were called to the auditorium and to take our seats.

After ten to fifteen minutes waiting for the auditorium to fill, the lights began to dim and rather surprisingly the trailer for Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 began playing on the big screen behind the stage, and at its conclusion the Master of Ceremonies announced; “Please welcome the ‘real’ Jim Lovell!” and Jim walked into the room.

I couldn’t help but immediately wonder what he thought of this. Could they, or in fact should they have used actual footage rather than footage from a film? It turns out I was wrong. Capt. Lovell is indeed a fan of the film and described it as “an accurate representation” of the events of his ill-fated moon mission, with a healthy dose of “artistic licence”.

Capt. Lovell is 85. And he began from the start.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1928 and as a child, Lovell was interested in rocketry, and built flying models with inspiration from his hero, Charles Lindbergh. From 1946 to 1948, he attended the University of Wisconsin for two years under the “Flying Midshipman” program. He applied and was accepted to attend the United States Naval Academy in the Autumn of 1948 and attended Annapolis for the full four years, graduating as an Ensign in the spring of 1952 with a B.S. degree. He then went to flight training at NAS Pensacola from October 1952 to February 1954.

Upon completion of pilot training Lovell served at sea flying night fighters from 1954 to 1957 and in January 1958, he entered a six-month test pilot training course at what was then the Naval Air Test Center at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, (also known affectionately as Pax River), along with Pete Conrad and Wally Schirra. Lovell graduated first in his class. Later that year, Lovell, Conrad, and Schirra became three of 110 military test pilots selected as potential astronaut candidates for NASA’s Project Mercury, where Schirra went on to become one of the Mercury Seven, but Lovell and Conrad failed to make the cut for medical reasons (Lovell because of a temporarily high bilirubin count in his blood). Lovell continued for four years at Pax River as a test pilot and instructor, using the call sign “Shaky”, a nickname given him by Conrad. But, in 1962 NASA required a second group of astronauts for the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs where Lovell applied again and, this time, was accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Group 2, as was Conrad.

I had expected his lecture to be brief, with the possibly of not too much detail and to have left feeling that it was going to be a speech that had been delivered again, and again and again hearing the repetition in Capt’ Lovell’s voice. But I was wrong. Capt. Lovell gave highly detailed accounts of each of his four missions into space and their relevance to NASA’s overall ambition of landing a man on the Moon. Beginning with Gemini 7 when for 2 weeks Jim Lovell and Frank Borman who’s mission priorities were (1) to demonstrate a 2-week flight, (2) to perform stationkeeping
with the Gemini launch vehicle stage 2, (3) to evaluate the ‘shirt sleeve’ environment and the lightweight pressure suit, (4) to act as a rendezvous target for Gemini 6, and (5) to demonstrate controlled reentry close to the target landing point. They had three scientific, four technological, four spacecraft, and eight medical experiments to perform, a situation that Jim described as “really miserable”. His next mission, Gemini 12 was all about learning how to undertake EVA, which had previously been unsuccessful.

Next up, Apollo 8. Jim described how Apollo 8 happened through a relatively last-minute decision on the part of NASA management. Initial plans were to test the lunar and command module components of the Apollo spacecraft first before striking out for the moon. But NASA management heard rumors that the Russians were planning a crewed mission to lunar orbit. After consultation with engineers and the astronauts, NASA did a risky do-se-do and decided to send the Apollo 8 command module alone around the moon, without a lunar module backup if something were to go wrong. Apollo 8 launched on December 21st 1968 and for the first time, humans went around the back of the moon, an experience Jim described as “like 3 school kids looking through a candy store window”. He also mentioned “We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice,” recalled Borman during 40th anniversary celebrations in 2008. “And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.” He continued “The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just the Christian religion,” added Lovell. “There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that’s how it came to pass.”

He then spoke about seeing the Earth rise as they came over the dark side of the moon as the mission was also famous for the iconic “Earthrise” image, snapped by Anders, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. Anders has said that despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.At that point in the lecture he paused and then raised his left thumb to the air, and told us how he covered the Earth in its entirety behind it.

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image credit: Space Lectures

“You looked at the Earth just 240,000 miles away and it looks completely uninhabited. It’s just a small body tucked away going around a star. And the star is tucked away on the outer edge of the milky way. And you think to yourself how insignificant we all are…And then we say how fortunate. How fortunate we all are.”

Apollo 13 is one of the most famous space missions of all time. Approaching 56 hours into the mission, Apollo 13 was approximately 205,000 miles (330,000 km) from Earth en route to the Moon. Approximately six and a half minutes after the end of a live TV broadcast from the spacecraft, Fred Haise was in the process of powering down the LM, while Lovell was stowing the TV camera, and Houston flight controllers asked Jack Swigert to turn on the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans in the Service Module, which were designed to destratify the cryogenic contents and increase the accuracy of their quantity readings. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang” accompanied by fluctuations in electrical power and the firing of the attitude control thrusters. The crew initially thought that a meteoroid might have struck the Lunar Module. Immediately after the bang Swigert reported a “problem”, which Lovell repeated “Houston, we’ve had a problem” and clarified it as a “main B bus undervolt”, a temporary loss of operating voltage on the second of the spacecraft’s main electrical circuits. Oxygen tank 2 immediately read quantity zero. About three minutes later, the number 1 and number 3 fuel cells failed. Lovell reported seeing out the window that the craft was venting “a gas of some sort” into space. The number 1 oxygen tank quantity gradually reduced to zero over the next 130 minutes, entirely depleting the SM’s oxygen supply. Apollo 13 was to be the third lunar landing attempt, and it was classified as a “successful failure” because of the experience gained in rescuing the crew. The mission’s spent upper stage successfully impacted the moon. He also went into detail about the trajectories they used to orbit the moon and return to Earth.  55 countries offered to send boats to assist with recovering Apollo 13 “including Paraguay and Czechoslovakia! Which don’t even have coastlines!”

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A Question and Answer session was then held under the stewardship of Profession Brain Cox, which lasted for a further 30 minutes, before Capt’ Lovell signed autographs for every person in the auditorium.

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He left us with two memorable quotes;

Regarding Apollo 8: “People often say they want to go heaven when they die. But ladies and gentleman, you go to heaven when you are born.”

Regarding Apollo 13: “Let me leave you with an old saying I’ve heard “there are 3 types of people in this world, there are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen and there are people who wonder what just happened.” Back in April 1970, those people in Mission Control were the group that made things happen.  Thank you.”

Thank you so very much, Capt. Jim Lovell.

Title picture credit: Mark Kensett

4 thoughts on “Meeting Capt. Jim Lovell

  1. I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the second showing as well – great summary you’ve written, was deeply impressed by his command of facts and stamina to do all those photos, talk, then sit and sign everything at the end!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, greatly appreciated. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Jim since his lecture, at Cape Canaveral, and he spoke fondly of his time in Pontefract. A true Gentleman and professional. I can hardly comprehend the entire weekend! It seemed so surreal.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi there,
      I’ve done a little research on this matter, I can see wikipedia has the Lovell siblings listed under Marilyns maiden name, but, as far as I can find out, they do take the name Lovell. I’ll delve a little deeper… Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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