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Apollo 13’s Lovell Lectures on Turning “Almost Certain Catastrophe into a Successful Recovery”

Captain James Lovell, Jr., acknowledged the crowd's applause in Fisher Auditorium on November 1, 2010, for the third annual First Commonwealth Endowed Lecture. (Keith Boyer photo)

“The real 13 was not just another space adventure,” Captain James Lovell, Jr., commander of the Apollo 13, told audiences Monday night, November 1, 2010, in Fisher Auditorium.

Lovell appeared at IUP as part of the First Commonwealth Endowed Lecture Series. He spoke mainly of his experience aboard spacecraft in his lecture “Apollo 13: A Successful Failure.”

Lovell prefaced his experiences by telling of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech in Houston, Texas, in which he said he planned to land a man on the moon and bring him home safely by the end of the decade.

“That was a very strong commitment,” he said. “That was a very bold statement.”

He talked about how the craft was originally on a free-return path—if something were to go wrong, it would be able to make it to the moon, around the moon, and eventually back. After about thirty hours, he said, mission control took the craft off the free-return path.

“I didn’t worry about it,” Lovell said. “This was my second time to the moon—the sights, the sounds, even the smells were all familiar to me.”

A live feed from a camera in Apollo 13 was broadcast to several different network stations, most of which, he said, were uninterested.

“Everybody in Houston was watching the ball game,” he said, “including the people in the control room.”

It was right after the live feed ended that the three astronauts in the craft felt a sudden impact.

“I looked up at Fred Haise to see if he knew what was causing all the commotion. From his expression, I could tell—he had no idea.

“I looked up at Jack Swigert. Jack’s eyes were wide as saucers. Not only did he not know what was going on, but he was saying to himself, ‘Why am I here?’”

It was at that point that numerous control panels on board Apollo began shutting down. Two liquid oxygen storage tanks began leaking alarmingly quickly.

“We would have no electricity and lose the entire propulsion system,” he said.

Lovell went on to tell of the tense return trip, which involved abandoning the command module in favor of the lunar module, which was designed for two people.

“Finally,” he said, “I got a message [from mission control]. They said, ‘Jim, we’ve been thinking about your problem for a long time trying to figure out how to get you back. We’ve all come to the conclusion that with the conditions of the situation you’re in right now, you’re not going to get home.’”

Lovell told them he’d already come to that conclusion; what he needed was a solution.

“I learned something that I took with me from the public sector of space to the private sector of business: Always expect the unexpected.”

After six days, Apollo 13 finally splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Ships tracking the craft’s position were on hand to pull the astronauts from the water.

“What’s the moral of this story? I shouldn’t be here to talk to you,” he said.

“I’m here because of a dedicated group of people in that control center, using those attributes—those characteristics—that are so important: good leadership all the way through the organization, teamwork, perseverance. It turned almost certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.”

—Story by Megan Guza

—Photography by Keith Boyer