General Thomas P. Stafford is a veteran NASA astronaut who flew in space 4 times and in 4 different spacecraft, completing 6 rendezvous, orbited the moon and accumulated 507 hours in space. I am lucky enough to meet astronaut Tom Stafford today.

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford


A brief space summary. His first flight was piloting Gemini 6 for the first rendezvous in space and less than 6 months later was Commander on Gemini 9 rendezvousing with an Agena Target Vehicle but without docking.  Tom Stafford’s next flight in space was as Commander on Apollo 10 with an all-up test of the lunar module (LM) “Snoopy” flying to within 9 miles of the lunar surface, the point where powered descent would begin for landing and considered to be the dress rehearsal for the first manned moon landing. During Apollo 10 on their back from the moon, Tom Stafford and his crew mates also achieved the highest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle.  Tom Stafford had his final flight in space as the Apollo Commander of the Apollo Soyuz Test Program (ASTP) with the historic handshake in space between Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts.

The Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” dropped down to 47,400 feet (9 miles) above the lunar surface.


It is unfortunate that Captain Eugene Cernan is unable to attend today after an unexpected illness and thanks to the fantastic www.space-lectures.com team and a phone call from Gene Cernan to his crew-mate of two missions, Tom Stafford, they have managed to persuade 85 year old General Stafford to attend at very short notice.  To steal a phrase, you could say “this was their finest hour, a successful failure.”  Tom Stafford turned out to be absolutely fantastic.

It’s not the first time they’ve managed to pull off these rare opportunities, (see my other posts).  If you have the slightest interest in attending astronaut space lectures, then this not-for-profit group will blow your mind in bringing legendary Apollo, Gemini and Space Shuttle astronauts. Tom Stafford is definitely a space legend. The simple fact is that from that golden age of space flight, all the men that have flown to the moon are now in their 80’s. These events are always sold out.  It’s time to get my space face on and meet the space ambassador Tom Stafford.

Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A
Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A


The lecture starts with a video, starting with background in Oklahoma and a summary of his long and illustrious career,  before coming out to greet the audience.  Tom Stafford may give the appearance of a frail elderly gentleman but when he speaks he won’t stop, his breath of knowledge and memory of the cold war space race and beyond is stunning.  This post will be lengthy with laughs along the way. I’ve done my best to record what I can and have separated into space eras.  This is Tom Stafford in his own words…

The Space Race

It’s a real pleasure to be here in the UK again, I’ve been here many times before, I always say its one of my favourite countries to come to, the natives speak English over here.  It’s a pleasure to be here at short notice, my dear friend Gene Cernan is under the weather, he called me on Wednesday and wanted to know if I could be here.

Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Humankind has always look up at the sky, and looked up particularly at the moon, the sun, the stars, where did they come from,will we ever go there?  Maybe a few people wrote about it but it was impossible.  However things have progressed over the years. To me, the defining moment was when the Soviet Union was when they put up the first satellite, Sputnik. America was this democracy, always fighting with each other among the parties, we are one of reaction, not a positive action but once we get our mind to things, the whole country gets behind it.  So as a result of Sputnik, congress pushed President Eisenhower and formed NASA.

Lyndon Johnson was not what you would call a space buff, he did start Project Mercury, the Soviet Union had already started although we didn’t know that and the defining moment came after President Kennedy, who saw the worldwide acclaim that Yuri Gagarin got on April 12 1961 when he did an orbit around the Earth and the acclaim on May 5th 1961 with Alan Shepherd went 115 miles up and 200 miles down range. So what he turned to was the National Space Council which was headed by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he knew he had to get a winner and asked what could we do to get ahead of the Soviet Union in science, technology and also beat the Soviets.  So the Vice President gathered all the best heads at NASA, Von Braun, Gliruth, Silverstein etc and got back to Kennedy with 3 scenarios:

  • Fly a free return trajectory, fly by the moon and come back although we don’t think there is a way we can beat the Soviets doing it.  This was exactly the type of mission the Soviets had in mind.
  • There is a 50% chance we can beat them going into an orbit around the moon.
  • However we think definitely, that if we go and land a man on the moon and come back we can beat them, and this will push us ahead.

So May 25 1961, (Kennedy announced) that in this decade we will land a man on the moon and safely return.  I’m sure glad he had that second bit there.  We were going to go to the moon but how do we go to the moon?  There were several different ideas.  Dr Gilruth suggested a large booster, about 2 1/2 times bigger than a Saturn V and do a direct landing. Dr Von Braun had other ideas, he wanted 2 smaller ones, at least 50% larger than a Saturn V, put one in orbit, then the second one in orbit, rendezvous and then do direct ascent to the moon and direct ascent back.  Both ideas had very big boosters. However a team headed by Dr John Houbolt came up with an idea of a way to drastically reduce weight, less costs, faster and safer, which was to have a lunar orbit rendezvous.

In July 1962, NASA announced to the world, that we would use Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) to carry out Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon and returning.  On my birthday in 1962 I was very lucky to be selected in the second group of nine astronauts where our job was to fly the Gemini program and Apollo.

LOR explained by Houbolt
LOR explained by Houbolt



Gemini is lost in history to a lot of people but it was so important, the first time we had a computer on-board a manned spacecraft, on-board radar, be able to do a rendezvous, demonstrate walking in space i.e. extra vehicular activities, support 2 people for 14 days and have a guided re-entry to a precise point, all of which we needed for Apollo. It would also get the crews trained for the techniques of rendezvous and docking.

Gemini was such a crucial program, without it, Apollo could have been a disaster.

All that we learned we incorporated into Apollo. I was originally chosen to be on the first Gemini crew with Al Shpeherd but he was grounded with an ear problem, so Gus Grissom chose John Young and they were chosen, Wally Schirra selected me and we were the back up crew.  We trained long and hard and about 3 days before we were interrupted with a newsflash that the Soviet Union had just had a cosmonaut walk in space, Alexi Leonov.  We saw him outside and pushing off and we thought it looked simple.

Later I got to know him real well on Apollo-Soyuz (ASTP), I could speak some Russian, him some English, we were having dinner together before the mission, we’d had a few drinks, he told me how he nearly got killed out there,how his suit had ballooned.  I said I’d sure wished we had known that.

So Gemini 3 went up, did 3 orbits, Gemini was in good shape, I was originally scheduled for the first spacewalk, it was going to be simple, just open up the hatch, stand up, turn around a little bit and get back down.  But after Leonov did that, NASA had to respond. So Ed White went out for 22 minutes and when he started to come back in, his suit ballooned.  The critical link for those of you that have seen Gemini spacecraft is your height. We had practised in the zero G air-plane, the commander would grab hold of you, called the ‘alles-oop’ manoeuvre, he’d pull down as hard as he could and with the other hand take the hatch flush and lock it down. When Ed White tried to get back in, his suit had ballooned so much, but I guess his adrenaline was really flowing that day, his heart rate went over 220 beats a minute. We nearly lost him,we could have lost McDivitt too. We still didn’t understand how to train, walk, work in space or do specific items.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training

Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper went in Gemini 5 for a a long duration mission, 8 days, so we were getting nearer the time it would take to get to the moon and back. Then next was Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and I would do the first rendezvous with an Atlas Agena rocket.  The idea of rendezvous had been around for many years but nobody had ever done one.  What we had planned to do originally was to use the least energy, for those who study orbit mechanics, a Hohmann Transfer. When you go around the Earth, you do 25700 feet per second, if you add 1 foot per second, 180 degrees later, you’ll raise your orbit about 1/2 mile.  The lower you get the faster you go around, the higher you get the slower you go. So we thought we’d do a series of Hohmann Transfers to catch up with the target vehicle.  The problem is there are wide dispersion at the end of that 180 degree turn.

One of the members of mission planning analysis called Wally and I over, showed us Russian document called The Concentric Theory of Rendezvous of Three Bodies.  I couldn’t read a word of Russian but could see the diagrams and knew it had some merit. We got the document translated and used the Russian ideas.  All this was published in open literature.

The Atlas went up, the Agena went up but the Air Force (US) had goofed up with the sequencing but putting oxidizer first then fuel which a no-no. Should always be fuel first then come in with oxidizer and shut oxidizer off first, if you don’t you can have some bad consequences – combustion instability, explosion in the thrust chamber.  So here’s Wally and I in October 1965 with no target vehicle. We had Gemini 7 that was going to go up in a 2 week mission in December so why not put a radar transponder on Gemini 7, take Gemini 6 off the pad and as soon as Gemini 7 launches, put 6 back on the pad, launch them 12 days later and do a rendezvous.

Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous
Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous

Gemini 7 went up and we got ready to go 9 days after.  we were a T Minus 3 seconds when  the engines went off and started to shake, rattle and roll and the engine shut-down at exactly T Zero and we had the lift off symbol. By mission rules we were supposed to eject, we knew nothing about 100% pure oxygen. Wally and I had been soaking in pure oxygen for nearly 2 hours – you’d have probably seen 2 Roman Candles coming off the Gemini spacecraft. We knew by the seat of our pants we had not lifted off. It was his responsibility to pull the D-ring and my responsibility to back him up. We didn’t and then a fire broke out and for that we were on a hot mic, and that where I was quoted as saying “aw shucks.” That was a close miss, the closest we ever had and we had the lift off symbol. We had a dead man’s curve of about 0.75 seconds before the pyrotechnics went off and we would probably would have had a hard time making it.

On the 12th day after Gemini 7 we finally lifted off. We had a rudimentary computer, had a closed loop with the radar, computer and inertial platform but what happens if we lose the radar, the computer or the platform? So we worked out a series of nomographs, my job as the right seat pilot was to work those and figure out what would happen if it did. We worked on some slightly eccentric orbits, when we were below the target, worked out at a  given angle and feet per second to raise your orbit up. We used inertial line of sights, kind of the same way an aircraft works.

It worked like a piece of cake, we rendezvoused right on schedule. Also when the computer went I was taking data points, the radar locked on about 270 miles. By that time I had my solution about two minutes before the on-board computer had its solution. I told Wally we could use my solution right now and we could make it up on mid courses. We were coming in about 30 feet per second, brought it down to 15 and then stopped about 10 feet from Gemini 7. We flew around and started easing in, we couldn’t dock, to about 1 foot to 18 inches.  Just like flying formation acrobatics, when you are there it’s real easy to stay there.  Gemini was a great design.

The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an "angry alligator. "
The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an “angry alligator. “

On Gemini we flew 10 missions in 18 months, it was go, go, go.  I chose Gene Cernan to be my pilot, we were the back up for Gemini 9 and do the wrap up mission on Gemini 12. Elliott See and Charlie Bassett were later killed in an air crash so we had to take over the mission. We were going to have along duration spacewalk, an Air Force (US) experiment of a rocket pack. Cernan was to use the rocket pack of hot gas thrusters and so that it didn’t burn through his space suit, he had a mesh covering to protect him.

What we didn’t have was a de-fog solution on our visor. I told Cernan to concentrate on the EVA and I would concentrate on the spacecraft. The Atlas took off but the range officer had to blow it up.  We recycled a nose section from Gemini, 2 x 25 lb thrusters with a target docking adaptor called the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor.  On June 3rd 1965, Cernan and I lifted off.  With the ATDA they didn’t get a shroud deployed symbol, we didn’t know what to expect. We got up there and could see the two halves of the shroud, I was trying to describe it to the ground and said it looked like an “angry alligator.” I also called it a few other things too.

Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub
Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub

We couldn’t dock with it but we did the early phase rendezvous, first optical rendezvous and first ballistic overhead rendezvous which was to simulate a command module coming down to pick up a low level lunar module disabled in low lunar orbit. it’s one thing to do a rendezvous when you’re looking at the stars but when you are coming down over head, the more you pitch down, the faster the Earth is coming by, it doesn’t feel like 160 miles up, fells more like a couple of hundred thousand feet. You are really moving and nearly get vertigo.  Then came the spacewalk. we had a 25 foot umbilical, a bigger chest pack with batteries and water evaporator, no liquid cooled garments alike Apollo.  Gene Cernan was to do the first spacewalk for 2 hours in this rocket pack at the back of the Gemini.  This is one episode Gene Cernan and I never wanted to do again.

I had an incident occur as we were suiting up that morning, Deke Slayton, my boss walked in, he ordered the suit technician out of the room and said….

Tom, I want you to know NASA management has decided if Cernan dies out there, you’ve got to bring him back, we cannot afford to have a dead American astronaut floating around in space.

I blew my stack, 2 1/2 hours before launch and you’re pulling this on me, we’ve never talked about it, not discussed it with Cernan, never thought about the contingency plans.  Do you understand to come back, I’ve got to have the hatch open, what do you think a 400 lb rocket pack on a 150 foot tether is going to do on a 3000 lb re-entry vehicle? We’ve never practised that. How could I get through that, supposing I did, would he get caught up in the drogue chutes.  I was really pissed by then and said…

Deke, when those bolts blow and that Titan lifts off, I’m the Commander, I’ll make the decision, understand that. 

And with that, I slammed my visor down and stormed out.  Cernan was waiting for me and on the way up, he said to me “Hey Tom, what was Deke taking to you about?” I said “Geno, he hopes we have a real good ride.”  We scrubbed out that morning because of the Agena.

The Gemini 9 Spacewalk from hell

We finally get up for the EVA, Gene gets out, stands up and starts with his 25 foot umbilical cord. The Gemini spacecraft is that small I couldn’t put my feet together, it was cramped. Had more room in the front seat of a VW bug. He was going out at the end of the tether and Newton’s Law, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He’d come swinging back and start to twerk the spacecraft that I had to control.

He was really huffing and puffing, I was looking at a rear view mirror of him, he goes to the back of the spacecraft, the sun is going down and he says “Tom, my back is killing me.”  I asked what was wrong and he said his left side was starting to burn up.  What had happened was the 7 layers of insulation on spacesuit, a small section had separated away, so the sun was going right in and he received a second degree burn on his back.  He was trying to get into this astronaut manoeuvring unit (AMU) but as soon as the sun goes down his faceplate fogs over.  He’s blind and can’t see. Tried to use the AMU which had its own radio and we had lost one way of a two-way communication. We worked out he could hear me so I told him to get back on two-way communications.

The hatch was sticking and from Ed White’s experience, we had a simple mechanism, an aluminium T-bar to slam the hatch down. So we were coming across Australia at night-time, could see the Southern Cross coming up, here I am 130 miles up, my suit is pressurised, the hatch is sticking, my buddy is feet behind me and he can’t see. I said to Gene that when the sum comes up, within 10 minutes if you don;t get de-fogged, we’re calling it quits and you’re going to get back in the spacecraft. The sun comes up and he doesn’t de-fog, so we called it quits yet he couldn’t see. Fortunately we did have a rail on top of the Gemini adaptor section and I had to direct him to how to get hold of that bar.

He was walking hand over hand, got him to swing his body round to the left, grabbed his feet that were dangling in, put his feet in the ejection seat well and tried to get him in the general direction of the sun but that fog would not burn off. Had to try and get him to clear his faceplate with his nose by pushing as hard as could against it.  We had his umbilical cord snaking all around, not much room in Gemini, managed to get his feet below the instrument panel, but his suit had ballooned up like Ed White and Alexi Leonov had. His head was still a couple of inches out so grabbed the hatch and slammed it down and locked it home.

Gemini 9 recovery
Gemini 9 recovery

Gene told me his legs and back were killing him and he told me to get the pressure up quick. When the pressure was up, he opened his faceplate up and his face was completely pink like he’d been in a sauna. You’re not supposed to have water in the spacecraft but I just hosed him down. In that 2 hours outside, Cernan had lost 13 lbs of weight. Not a recommended way to lose weight.  We landed the next day, right off the coast of Bermuda, and they flew the suit back. That evening they poured a 1 1/2 lb of water out of his boot.

We landed, we had a way to second guess the computer, I told the Skipper of the (USS) WASP, this was way before GPS, we had a sextant for sunrise, my inertial platform is good, I think I can it right near your flight-deck. It was the first time you ever saw live TV of a Gemini coming down. We landed within 3.5 miles within the actual aim point, the closest of any Gemini or Apollo. It was quite an experience. We still didn’t know how to walk in space, from that the idea came out about training underwater.  Gemini 9 was one heck of a mission.



We did Gemini so fast, only two close calls in Gemini, the first one, with Wally and I at the shut-down when the fire broke out, the second one on Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott where they did a rendezvous and docked with an Agena. After a period of time, the whole mas started to wobble back and forth, everything looked fine so they thought it had to be the Agena.  Neil un-docks with the Agena and Gemini starts to spin up, getting as high as 1 revolution per second. Neil turned on his re-entry thrusters, which was the right thing to do. Dave Scott started to kill the channels for roll, pitch and yaw and the got the bad thruster. When it came to a full stop, all Gemini 8 had was one half weight of one re-entry thruster, the other one was gone.  They were two close calls but we made it.

Lunar Orbit Flight

There were still mistakes out there, tragically we lost the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffe in January of 1967. That set us back about 18 months. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Union was still planning a free return trajectory around the moon. They were going to build a big booster like we had except they didn’t have a big thrust engine. We had 3 technologies that made it possible for Americans to go to the moon and if we didn’t, we’d have fallen flat on our back.

  1. Back in 1955 General Bernard Schriever ordered development of a single chamber, 1 1/2 million lb thrust engine using kerosene and liquid oxygen. The bigger the thrust chamber of a rocket engine, the more susceptible it is to instability and explosion. I remember still being a Captain, test pilot at Edwards (US Air Force Base) hearing roars and seeing the night light up, and some nights you’d hear a roar and a big bang. The F1 engine was still exploding while we were still flying Gemini but they got the stability worked out and we had 5 of those F1 engines on the first stage. In 1957, the Air Force stopped the F1 engine and turned it over to NASA.  When they decoded to go to the moon , NASA picked it back up again in 1961.
  2. In 1959, two years before Kennedy made the announcement, NASA had a meeting of heads with the top engineers; what is the best fuel we can use to out of low earth orbit, turns out to be liquid hydrogen. Its the lightest element and higher the exhaust velocity. We had to learn how to produce large quantities and liquefy it, transport it, store it, transport it in a booster, quite a challenge.  The Soviets had kerosene, even though they had a bigger booster, 9.9 millions lbs of thrust, we had 7500 lbs, we could put 300,000 lbs in orbit and the Soviets could only put a little less than 200,000 lbs. On their lunar lander, its only about half the size or ours.
  3. The third one was John Houbolt and the lunar orbit rendezvous (LRO).

Those three decisions made Apollo possible. We had so many things to fix after that tragic fire in 1967, we finally flew in October 1968 (Apollo 7), Wally Schirra was Commander. Before that, the Soviet Union in the spring of 1968 had their first success: a Proton could put Soyuz on a free return. They were going to have a big booster, the N1, which weighed more than the Saturn V, which would take to lunar obit with a command service module and a lunar lander.  It was a bit Mickey Mouse as they didn’t have docking tunnel, they would have to do a spacewalk to get into their lunar module.

My good friend Alexi Leonov, he had been chosen to go. The Soviets did a lot for publicity, he’s a natural born PR person, good speaker, he was there watching N1’s blow up. The first one got up about 12000 feet and blew up, the second one got up to 300-500 feet above the pad and one of the oxidizer swallowed a bolt and exploded.  It fell back and had all this kerosene and liquid oxygen and became the largest man-made non nuclear explosion in history. Between 1/6 and 1/7 the power of Hiroshima. Alexi Leonov told me about it later, he was standing about 3.5 km away and nearly got knocked down in the blast. They tried it four times and it never worked, that was the end of the program.

Apollo 7 went great, so in December of 1968 we launched Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders on Apollo 7 for 10 orbits around the moon, a real gutsy mission. We’d gone to the moon, orbited the moon but hadn’t landed yet. We had such a head of steam and team dynamics, by the time we had started to fly and by the time we had landed on the moon, there was nine months where we flew five missions, four of those on the big Saturn, three of those to the moon. It was all the experience we had on Gemini that let us do that.


Apollo 10

When it came to my third mission (Apollo 10), there was no person really selected to be the first one on the moon, it was all on rotations, prime, back-up, prime etc. I was back up on Gemini 7, Neil was back-up on Apollo 8, Pete Conrad back-up on Apollo 9, so I had Apollo 10, Neil had Apollo 11 and Pete Conrad at Apollo 12. I flew the first Lunar Module (LM) out, with Gene Cernan as my LM pilot and John Young as Command Module pilot.

Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy
Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy

I thought space was so beautiful, been there twice before, all we had was Hassleblad pictures of the Earth and some short 16mm film, I pushed for live colour television. People would often ask “were you afraid out there?” Absolutely not, it you’re afraid or scared you shouldn’t be there, you’re in the wrong profession. We were fighter pilots, test pilots, we knew what the risk was, knew how to minimise risks to the best of our abilities. We’d lost a lot of friends too. The funniest feeling I ever has was after we had left the Earth, from Earth orbit you can barely see a slight curvature. We docked with the LM and when you fly to the moon you BBQ to the moon, rotating in sunlight otherwise one side would be very hot and could explode the fuel and the other side would be very cold and could freeze the fuel.

We hadn’t seen the Earth, and during that BBQ attitude, we were 90 degree to the plain of the Earth. Gene Cernan was the first one to see it, what In saw gave me a sinking feeling. The Earth was the size of a basketball and it was just shrinking away from us. I knew I was in for a long ride that day. I wanted NASA to call England, head of the British Flat Earth society and tell him that the Earth was really round. Woke up the next morning and by then, the Earth was the size of a grapefruit, every 20 minutes the Earth would go by and then sun would go by. We didn’t see the moon, we were in eclipse and knew we wouldn’t see it till we got there.

We woke up to the news, the whole world had seen the first colour TV and also that Colonel Stafford had a message from the President of the British Flat Earth Society, “Tell Colonel Stafford, yes it is round but its a flat disc.” We had so much reflective sunlight it was hard for us to see our first big stars, Sirius, Canopus.  John Young called back and said “Hey, we’ve been out here for a day and half, we still don’t see that moon but we’ll take your for it that its out here. Finally we got about 6 hours out, John could see it through his telescope, a little slither of a moon. The sun went down, we were still in contact with the Earth and it was just a big black area, couldn’t see it. We got squared away in the right attitude, two minutes before we were supposed to turn on the engine to brake into lunar orbit, suddenly the moon appears right before us.

Transferred the colour TV back to Earth so they could see the first Earthrise. You’ll never forget your first Earthrise, it’s pretty unique. Your orbit around the moon is every two hours, the moon only has 1/6 mass, your speed is slow, only 5500 feet per second, about 3700 mph, that is slow compared top Earth orbit. In comparison I though we were going to stall out.

The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module "Snoopy" photographed from the Command Module "Charlie Brown" prior to docking in lunar orbit.
The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” photographed from the Command Module “Charlie Brown” prior to docking in lunar orbit.

Unfortunately, our LM was too heavy to land, our job as to go down about 9 miles above the moon, radar map, photo map, visually look out and try to pick out potential landing sites. We did that twice, went way up above John Young, up 210 miles and down 9 miles and get further behind him to phase in for the rendezvous. On the second one, we were going upside down and backwards and we were just about to lose contact with the Earth and I noticed the thrusters start to fire, didn’t know why, wasn’t yawing, looked out the window and the moon wasn’t moving in that direction, I reached down for attitude switch but missed it so went to the abort guidance system to shoot us back up to John Young, suddenly we started spinning about 50-60 degree a second.

All the attitude controls on the ascent stage only weighed about 10,000 lbs, in total we weighed 30,000 lbs so I reached over about 45 seconds early and blew off the descent stage and went to the hand controller, only had a 3 gimble platform, there was a big red dot on both yaw angles, flew around that and that’s where I was quoted as saying “golly, gee whiiz.” Got everything back in attitude and performed the first rendezvous around the moon, stayed around for another and then came back where we set the all time world speed record. That should hold until somebody goes to Mars.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

When I got back I replaced Alan Shepherd and became chief of the astronauts office, kept that till Al flew his flight on Apollo 14 and then I moved up to Deputy Director of Flight Crew Ops. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Academy of Science talked to the head of NASA and suggested a joint meeting with Apollo and Soyuz. I was chosen as the Commander.

With the Soviets you would not believe the secrecy, everything was state secret; oil production, wheat production etc. I was assigned in March 1972, the Soviets said they would announce their crew 6 months before. I went into Chris Kraft and Dr Lovell and said that we would need at least two years to work with the Soviets, to understand how to work with them, understand their systems, procedures and techniques. I drew my line in the sand and here’s my crew; Vance Brand as Command Module Pilot, Deke Slayton as Docking Module pilot. The press wanted the to know who the Soviet crew was and they reluctantly announced Commander Alexi Leonov and Flight Engineer Valeri Kubasov.

We found working with the Soviets tough negotiations and they signed on the line they lived up to it. With my Oklahoma accent I had a tough time learning a foreign language and the Russians always had a hard time understanding me. Under mission rules, each crew would speak their own language, the other crew would have to understand. After six months working back and forth, cosmonauts in Houston, we were in Moscow, we weren’t getting there. At a small reception I was talking to the back up commander Anatoly Filipchenko, we were having a few drinks, maybe more and we came up with the idea of I’ll speak Russian to him and he’ll speak English to me. it worked well, as when you are not fluent in a foreign language, you’ll speak it slower and more distinctly.

Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP
Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP

Even when I  speak to my dear friend Alexi Leonov over the phone, I speak Russian to him, he speaks English to me and we became very close. We were all professional pilots, no politics, its was a really great time, living there in the Soviet Union and having them come over here. Everything was censored, Pravda was a big 6 page newspaper with no ads and we were always pulling jokes on each other. Ron Evans brought over a Playboy magazine, we were having some meeting over there, open it up to the centerfold and throws it under the table and then I say in Russian “Pardon me is that yours?” They’d look under the table and Aargh!

They built a hotel for us in Star City, we moved in there and were there during the fourth of July 1974. The relationships were getting relaxed, détente, I’ll never forget a state reception with President Nixon he seemed to be semi-high when all hell was breaking loose back US because of Watergate. I remember him telling me we’d done so many things, asking me about 12,000 nuclear weapons and how many villages din India did we want to destroy. I wasn’t about to get into that discussion. I just said I hadn’t really thought of the Mr President! 3 weeks later he resigned.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP

As I said, if was the fourth of July and Ron Evans was a real joker and had brought half a case of fireworks and firecrackers. We’d had this big reception at a Dacha owned by very wealthy Russian before the revolution, out the back it had a huge courtyard, the head of the Politburo was there, Admirals and Marshals were there, we were having a great time with the cosmonauts. We go back to our own hotel and we had a few more drinks and it was time to fire the fireworks. Everything was quiet and nice so we set off the firecrackers, sounded like a machine gun going off. Then we fired sky rockets going off and noticed lights started to come on. pretty soon we saw the flashing lights of the police so Ron fired a bottle rocket firework at it, perfect shot. The police officer walks towards us, I’d had a few drinks, and said “Comrade, come here! Today is the birthday of our revolution, do you want to have a drink with us?”

It was a fun time. The Russian always kidding me about my Oklahoma accent. One of the last press conferences we had, a correspondent asked Alexi Leonov how we would work together with him replying that on this mission we speak in English, in Russian and in Oklahoma. Apollo Soyuz was a great mission, it opened up the Iron Curtain, it was the end of Apollo and a great, great era. We showed the world we had two super powers, different languages and different political systems but if you set a common goal, you can achieve it. That was my responsibility as commander from my side of the world and Alexi’s side. Alexi is like a brother to me, his Granddaughter is named after my daughters name and my grandson is named Alexi. I talk to Gene Cernan probably more than any other astronaut and I talk to Alexi about as much as I talk to Geno. He’s a great person, I see him about twice a year because of my experience with the Russians on Apoolo-Soyuz, I still go back there. It’s a really great relationship.

We pushed the administrator for an escape vehicle on the space station, at the time, we had just a Shuttle. The Soyuz is a simple vehicle and rugged vehicle, it can land anywhere – with the Shuttle if you miss the runway you’re dead. Since 2011, crews keep flying up and down on Soyuz. I didn’t know a lot about the background of what the Russians did, the idea of what it would take to go into orbit velocity, converging and diverging nozzles, multi-stages and even walking in space were all thought by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, he was really the father of modern spaceflight.

Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Tom Stafford wraps up his talk with a summary on how the modern US Air Force Stealth stealth and strike aircraft capability has been shaped by his influence. Tom Stafford has been a stunning success, an absolute pleasure, he’s given a remarkable lecture, all from memory, spoken with passion, pride over a pioneering and distinguished career, his friendships with Russian cosmonauts, particularity Alexi Leonov and the naming of each grand children provides a wonderful and personal insight.  He could quite happily have gone on talking all night, he had to be told to stop otherwise he’d be in danger of missing his fight back home. Astronaut Tom Stafford is a Space Lectures Legend.

I walk away with a great signed Gemini 6 rendezvous print and some great memories.  Here’s to the next event!  What better way to announce the next Astronauts visit in October than by one of them themselves by video clip from the ISS! Coolest intro ever!

See you in October!


Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

I am, by every definition, a nerd, a geek, a space nut, from astronomy and astrophotography to astronauts and Apollo from aged 4 to 44 (as I currently stand anyway).  Readers of this site (Hello?…..) and the type of posts on this site should confirm that, geek and proud.  So it should come as no surprise that today I’m meeting a veteran of four space flights, a man who flew to the moon twice, without landing, NASA astronaut James Arthur “Jim” Lovell.

NASA Astronaut Jim Lovell, Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
NASA Astronaut Jim Lovell, Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

Astronaut Jim Lovell was Pilot of Gemini 7 along with Frank Borman spending 14 days in space and completing the first space rendezvous with Gemini 6 coming as close as 30cm to each other. Jim Lovell then served as the Commander of the final Gemini mission on Gemini 12 along with Buzz Aldrin. In 1968, Jim Lovell’s next mission was as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft using the Saturn V rocket to leave Earth orbit, the first to see the Earth as a whole planet, the first to orbit another world, the first to travel around the far side of the moon in lunar orbit and one of the first humans to witness Earthrise and becoming one of the most famous photos in history. The crew of Apollo 8 then made a Christmas Eve television broadcast reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, at the time becoming the most watched television broadcast ever.  Jim Lovell last flew in space along with Fred Haise and Jack Swigert on Apollo 13, when an oxygen tank explosion near crippled the spacecraft giving rise to his famous radio call to NASA:

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”


Today’s event is organised by Ken Willoughby and the superb team of volunteers at Space Lectures, with a talk by Jim Lovell titled Apollo 13: A Successful Failure, followed by a Q and A session hosted by the floppy haired D:Ream(y) pop star of physics Professor Brian Cox.  These opportunities to listen to those who have gone around the moon, in this case twice, do not come along very often.  These events are not for profit and any coffers remaining go to supporting UNICEF.

The talk starts with a few clips from the Apollo 13 film directed by Ron Howard.

Professor Brian Cox and Jim Lovell during the www.space-lectures.com Q & A session
Professor Brian Cox and Jim Lovell during the www.space-lectures.com Q & A session

It’s a real pleasure to be here, my first time, I know you’re all space enthusiasts and I know that a lot of other astronauts have all been here so maybe there’s nothing left for me to say.  I have brought my wife (Marilyn) though who is really the stalwart of the space programme, wives are very important, they keep the guys going straight, I appreciate that Marilyn is sitting here to hear, probably for the very first time.

I was actually in the first selection for being an astronaut way back in 1958.  That’s the time when they had the selection of Al Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra.  I didn’t make it that time, we were a class of 32, they picked those 7 guys, I don’t know why.  But then, a couple of years later, they wanted a second group for the Gemini programme coming up, so I applied for that and this time I was selected and we called ourselves the Gemini astronauts.

I made 4 flights into space, they were all interesting flights and this was the time I called the golden age of our space activities.  Everybody was interested in it, a large group of the population was for the programme,  My first flight was Gemini 7.  Gemini 7 was a wonderful flight, there were doctors who didn’t think we could stay or live in space and zero gravity.  When you think about it, we evolved under the influence of gravity, so to prove that we could live in zero gravity and the maximum length of time to go to the moon and back again, we were starting to work on a lunar programme.  Gemini 7 was designated as a medical flight, we had some 23 experiments…and it was really bad news. Those who have seen the Gemini spacecraft, smaller that a Volkswagen.

Astronauts James Lovell Jr. (left) and Frank Borman are pictured just before final countdown of the Gemini-7 launch. The spacecraft has been sealed and is ready for launch. Photo credit: NASA
Astronauts James Lovell Jr. (left) and Frank Borman are pictured just before final countdown of the Gemini-7 launch. The spacecraft has been sealed and is ready for launch. Photo credit: NASA

My companion on that flight was Frank Borman, we had suits that were designed that when they were worn, they were cut so that when you were in flight, you were in a sitting position, because we weren’t going to go out of the spacecraft and if there was a problem, the spacecraft atmosphere failed and went to vacuum, we’d be in this position. We had EEG’s on our heads, blood pressure and heart rate monitors, cuffs on my thighs and calf.  Those of you who have been in hospital might remember that they blew up every 2 minutes, deflated every 6 minutes and this goes on for 2 weeks.  It was a miserable situation.  We were in there for 2 weeks.

Back in 1968, doctors said that in zero gravity, you won’t need the calcium to build up your bones because you’ll be in zero gravity.  Over a period of time, you just fall off with calcium, you don’t store it and consequently we were the first guinea pigs to give that a try. So two weeks before the flight they carefully monitored all of the intake, even to the perspiration of our bodies, they were pouring distilled water as we stayed in little bathing pool to see what the calcium out go was.  Then during the flight they knew exactly what we had for fluid.  Then 10 days after the flight, they again put us in isolation to then see what fluids we needed.  This was to see if there was a change in our calcium balance.  Well ladies and gentlemen I have to tell you that a 2 week mission is not the length of time to find out whether you flew off calcium.  As a matter of fact, even up to today, Scott Kelly who is now flying on the ISS for a whole year, is still doing a calcium balance study.

What happened to the body in the two weeks, we found out several things, first of all we all know, if you can’t walk around, the first thing that goes bad is the muscles, they become weak.  We found out after the flight walking across the carrier deck, my leg muscles were weak, my wife saw that in the move later on and said it looked like I had my pants full. of course the arms weren’t that bad and as we know today in spaceflight they have exercise equipment which is very necessary because otherwise the muscles deteriorate quite fast.

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6 - the first manned space rendezvous .
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6 – the first manned space rendezvous .

One of the other things that we saw was that zero gravity has an effect on blood flow to the heart.  It takes about 6 hours to get fully acquainted in zero gravity and the heart is pumping against hydrostatic pressure of about 1 1/2 feet, in zero gravity it doesn’t, so maybe the brain somehow tells the heart it doesn’t need to be pumping as hard, it can slow down.  So we found out that the heart rate slowed down about 10 beats per minute slower and also we found out that the amount of blood in the body increased.  When we first got information about that, we told the astronauts to drink more water, turns out they didn’t have to because you didn’t need as much blood in the body in zero gravity.  Why, because blood tends to pool down with a gravitational pull, so we have through evolution, have enough blood to keep it up around the head.  One of the things that we continued to do throughout our space flights was medical experiments and how man evolves and whether eventually we can go as far to Mars.

My second flight was different, Gemini 12, the last of the Gemini flights. We had in our Gemini’s 9, 10, and 11 attempted to go outside the spacecraft to do work.  On Gemini 4 Ed White did go out, he was attached to his oxygen hose but he just floated, he had a good time and got himself back in. In Gemini’s 9, 10, and 11 we thought we’d get people to do work around the spacecraft and all were unsuccessful, all the astronauts got overworked, heart rates went way up, they were breathing hard and fogging up their faceplates.  It turned out that we had forgotten Newton’s 3rd law of motion: For every action, there is an equal opposite reaction.  When you take away the effects of Earth’s gravity, the spacecraft became the mass and every time they would touch the spacecraft, it would react.  So we had to figure out on Gemini 12 how could we work outside the spacecraft with this effect.

Buzz Aldrin works on a mock up of Gemini 12. Photo credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin works on a mock up of Gemini 12. Photo credit: NASA

One brilliant engineer said why don’t we put the crew into a swimming pool, we get a mockup of the Gemini spacecraft, Buzz Aldrin was my companion on this, we put Buzz in a spacesuit, it works just as well in water as it does in space. So we rented a pool in Baltimore and bought the equipment up with the mockup spacecraft down in the water, put weights around Buzz to make him neutrally buoyant, telling Buzz not to swim, and planned certain footholds and handholds and try to see if he could do work under water.  It worked out quite well.  Today, both the United States and Russia have huge pools where they take astronauts before they do any work and practice that before they go up.

One thing about Gemini 7 which was very important, we did the world’s first rendezvous.  Gemini 6 was supposed to go up and do a rendezvous with an unmanned vehicle called Agena.  The Agena blew up on the transit up and then Gemini 6 did not have a part.  Then they realised that Gemini 7 would be up for 2 weeks, so they sent Gemini 6 up 12 days after we were up and we did the world’s first rendezvous.

Jim Lovell has a temperature check with an oral temperature probe attached to his spacesuit during a final preflight preparations for the Gemini 7. The temperature probe allows doctors to monitor astronauts' body temperature at any time during the mission. Photo credit: NASA
Jim Lovell has a temperature check with an oral temperature probe attached to his spacesuit during a final preflight preparations for the Gemini 7. The temperature probe allows doctors to monitor astronauts’ body temperature at any time during the mission. Photo credit: NASA

The 3rd flight of my experience was Apollo 8, this was in 1968.  It was an interesting flight in several respects, it was not supposed to be a flight to the mood.  Two things had happened though in the late fall (Autumn) of 1968 that changed things completely.  We had information that the Russians were going to put a man on the moon in the late fall of 1968. As a matter of fact now that the cold war is over, they were very serious about this, they had put a Zond 5 and a Proton booster, in the Zond spacecraft were animals and they fired it to the moon, it went around the moon, came back and landed in the pacific.  But it was not successful, they had not got their reentry and progress orders good and they suspect the animals overheated and died.  They were very concerned about safety and so they brought another Proton on the launchpad, put Zond 6 onto the vehicle, which also went around the moon.  But there was something wrong, they wanted to be sure.

In the United States, two things also happened, one was the fact that Grumman Aircraft building the Lunar Module, said they could not build the Lunar Module and deliver it by the end of 1968.  Apollo 8 was going to be an Earth orbital flight with the Command Module, Lunar Module, going around the Earth and test the Lunar Module, detach it, make sure it was working while we were in Earth orbit, jettison it and have it land in the ocean, then take the Command Module high, 4000 miles, turn it around, fire the engines down to a Lunar orbit returns, a speed of around 23-24,000 mph to fully test out the heat shield.  When we didn’t have the Lunar Module, what should we do?  It was decided at that point, a really bold decision on part of NASA management, that Apollo 7 was supposed to go up in 11 day Earth orbit, test the Command Module, and that came out successfully, we would change the mission on Apollo 8 and go all the way to the moon. Not only circumnavigate but also go all the way, orbit it and come back.  That was the decision and it was taken in the summer of 1968, we were planning the Earth orbital but we got the word the mission had changed.

I was a navigator on Apollo 8, I spent many a day at freeman Labs at MIT in Boston learning the new guidance system, how we could navigate and adjust our gyros so that we would be able to navigate to the moon.  We did it with gyros in our guidance systems and would always tell us our attitude with respect to the celestial sphere.  The flight on December 21st 1968, those of you who are old enough to remember the year 1968, kind of a bad year, especially in the US, we had Vietnam going on, we had riots, assassinations.  The navigation was successful, we got to the moon, fired ourselves to slow down and got around the moon and saw the ancient old craters on the far side of the moon.  We were like 3 school kids looking into a candy store window, we kind of forgot the flight plan for a second.

Earthrise as seen by the crew of Apollo 8. 24 December 1968.
Earthrise as seen by the crew of Apollo 8. 24 December 1968.

Finally on the 3rd orbit, what we were looking for were landing sites. We were looking for flat areas, the mares, to give the people who were doing the actual landing the greatest chance of survival.  As we came around the near side on the 3rd orbit, suddenly we saw this Earth come up out on the lunar horizon.  Really a fantastic site to see the Earth as it was, all you can see is the whites and the blues of the Earth, the tans of the desert areas.  As you look at the earth, just 240,000 miles away, it looks completely uninhabited, just a small body tucked away going around our rather normal star and that star is just ticked away on the outer edge of the Milky Way and you think to yourself how insignificant we all are.  There’s 6 billion astronauts all trying to do the same thing.

How fortunate we are that we have this place to live.  People often say that I hope to got heaven when I die, ladies and gentlemen, you go to heaven when you were born, because this is what it all is, the sky, the water, the interaction among people, this is really the place that is a heaven. This was the most significant flight of my career, the first to navigate that whole area, to see the Earth as it really is, look for suitable landing spots for the later landing flights.

Jim Lovell at Space Lectures, 31st October 2015.
Jim Lovell at Space Lectures, 31st October 2015.

My last flight was Apollo 13, it was to be the 3rd lunar landing mission.  We had landed Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 on flat areas, they wanted us to go into the hills of the lunar highlands so we selected a place called Fra Mauro.  But this flight was plagued by bad omens from the very beginning.  Years before the flight was about to take out, the factory making the oxygen tanks dropped one of them on the factory floor. They picked it up, refurbished it and made sure it was ready for anything it could do in flight.  the tank was originally scheduled to go on Apollo 10 but since it was delayed in transfer they redesignated it to go on Apollo 13.

I was scheduled for Apollo 14 but months before my take off time, NASA said that Al Shepard who had 13, he was grounded for several years, they didn’t think he’d had enough training and would you mind taking Apollo 13 and giving Al Shepard 14.  I said no, I’ll take off 6 months earlier.  i came home and told my wife that I just got Apollo 13, she said “you did what!”  She said “don’t you know about Apollo 13?”  Two weeks before the flight though they did a test on the spacecraft, called a countdown demonstration test. The spacecraft sat on the big booster, no fuel on it this time, to make sure everything worked fine, launch crew was in place, the flight crew went into the space craft and counted this down all the way to zero to find out if everything had worked, all the systems had turned on at the right time ready for our flight.

Apollo 13 crew before launch. Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.
Apollo 13 crew before launch. Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.

The test was perfect, no problem.  After the test was completed, the ground crew came over and started to secure the spacecraft.  When they started to remove the liquid oxygen from the tanks, with one of the tanks they couldn’t remove it in the normal manner.  This was the tank that was dropped at the factory.  So when you think about it, everything works fine in flight, the only thing we can’t do is remove the oxygen in one of our tests,  In that tank was a little heater and the heaters purpose was to blow of a little bit of the liquid to pressurise the spacecraft, provide oxygen for breathing and also to the fuels cells to provide electricity.

After a while they said while don’t we just boil the oxygen, that way we don’t have to wait another month to put another tank in there, take at least a month do all the tests, this way we can cut a little time and see if it works.  The spacecraft flew on 28 volts of DC power, everything was built around that system.  But what the crew did was put ground power to the spacecraft to turn on the heater.  Ground power was 55 volts DC power, and as they expected the heater came on, they started to boil off all the liquid oxygen but there was a little thermostat above the heater that when the temperature got up to around 80 degrees, remember that liquid oxygen is around -250 degrees, the little thermostat started to open up to kill off the power and prevent it from doing any harm.  The high voltage welded the contacts shut and from then on we had no protection.  We know now from tests after the flight that inside that liquid oxygen tank, when all of the liquid oxygen was almost depleted that the temperature got up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Damage to the heater system with the wires exposed and teflon had melted, but from the outside it appeared that nothing had happened and everyone was happy. On launch day when they filled up the tank with liquid oxygen, it was a bomb waiting to go off.

Apollo 13 explosion
Apollo 13 explosion

4 days before the flight, we discovered the entire crew had been exposed to the measles, talk about bad omens.  the doctors found out that were were married, our kids had measles too, that we were immune to the disease.  But Ken Mattingly was a bachelor, never had the measles and the doctors were sure that when he was by himself orbiting the moon waiting for fred Haise and I to come up and rendezvous, that he would get the measles. Suddenly Ken was dropped and Jack Swigert was put aboard.  On launch day we took off on April 11, 1970 at 13:13 central standard time.

The Saturn V took off, the first stage worked perfectly and jettisoned that, lit the engines on the second stage and about 2 minutes before it should have, the centre engine (there were 5) shut down.  We know now that it was going divergent on its structure and had it not shut down, it would have disintegrated, caught the other 4 engines and made for a very short flight.  we went around the Earth to check out our spacecraft and then fired our rocket to go all the way to the moon, that was the 2nd time on the third stage.  What we had was what was called a free return course at 24000 miles per hour and put it on a course that could cruise all the way to the moon, the course was such that if we had lost our main maneuvering engine on our spacecraft, it would still take us to the moon and just with the attitude rockets, with the help of the moon’s gravity as it passes, we would turn around and come back to the earth with the proper course to make it through the atmosphere and land back on earth.  That’s why it’s called free return, every flight from Apollo 8 to Apollo 17 started out on this extra safety factor.

About 13 hours out though, i got a call from mission control and they said that if you want to land at Fra Mauro, you want the sun in the proper position so you can see the shadows of the rocks on the surface, we’d have to get off that free return course.  We said fine, flipped over the spacecraft, they were married together now, the lunar module called Aquarius, Odyssey was our main spacecraft, so I got the instruction on how to make the attitude change, lit the lunar engine, it worked perfectly happy and we got a new course to to the moon called a hybrid.  This course will also take us directly to the moon, but now if something should happen to the engine, we were on a course that would take us to the moon and with our our attitude rockets and the moon’s gravity, could turn around, come back down to the Earth to the closest point of approach, about 40, 000 miles out.  That’s too far out to be captured by the Earth’s atmosphere for any kind of plan.

Apollo 13 Command/Service Module damage
Apollo 13 Command/Service Module damage

I didn’t worry about it, this was my 4th flight at this stage, second time to the moon, the stars, the sights, the sounds, even the smells were familiar, everything was fine.  Two days out, we were just finishing up a TV programme, so on April 13, the explosion occurred and the whole project changed from lunar landing on the moon to one of survival.  At first we didn’t know what went wrong, we thought maybe a meteor had hit the lunar module and we knew that we would be losing atmosphere so we quickly tried to put the hatch in to separate the Command Service Module, which we were in, with the lunar module – much like what a submarine crew would do if they had the same type of a problem.  Believe it or not Fred Haise and Jack Swigert tried it several times, couldn’t do it, I pushed them aside and let me try it, I couldn’t put the hatch back in and that hatch had to be back in to make a safe landing back on Earth.  We tied the hatch up and then realised we weren’t dead yet, so obviously a meteor hadn’t hit and what was the situation.

I then for some reason looked out the side window and saw escaping at a high rate of speed a gaseous substance, then it dawned on me what the situation was. It had happened somewhere back in the service module and we were losing oxygen.  At that time I went back to look at the instrument panel and sure enough, the gauge on one tank was zero and the gauge on the other tank was starting to come down.  We knew at that time that the only way we were going to get home was to use the lunar module as a lifeboat to get home.  Mission Control couldn’t believe what was happening, when they say that we had lost 3 fuel cells, computer telemetry and radio for a while, they thought it was a communication problem.  They thought the communications that come from the spacecraft and give us the same reading on our consoles probably got interrupted by a solar flare.

Jim Lovell during Apollo 13 training.
Jim Lovell during Apollo 13 training.

We knew what was happening and we got into that lunar module.  They’re a very fragile device, the skin of the vehicle is so thin that if you really wanted to you could punch a hole right through it. It was only designed to last 45 hours.  once you were in lunar orbit, you power up, 2 people would get in, land explore, come back up, dock again and then of course flew the vehicle away.  Of course it only supported 2 people for 45 hours, after the explosion, i counted the crew..1..2..3… We turned on all the systems anyway, the guidance system, the computer, now what do we do to have to get home.

The first thing after the ground realised we were in serious trouble was perhaps that he had better get you back on the free return course.  I thought that was a good idea, I thought I would rather come round and come back to the Earth and would somehow intercept the Earth, not so much that it’s survivable, rather than be a monument to our space programme that went out 240,000 miles in along elliptical orbit, around the Earth at perigee at 40,000 miles and keep doing that for years and years and years…

They asked if the Command Module was dead, I said there was no power, no oxygen, we can’t use the propulsion system because we’ve lost electricity.  They said to use the lunar module landing engine to make the transition, so they work out the attitude to move these two vehicles so that you can get back on the free return course.  When I got the attitude and started the maneuver, I learned something that I took with me for a lifetime – always expect the unexpected.  I used the attitude systems on the lunar module to make the maneuver. It turns out the lunar had never been designed to be maneuvered with the Command Service Module attached, that’s a 16,000 lbs dead mass.  The centre of gravity was way out in the field some place, not in the centre of the lunar module where the attitude rockets were good.  I had to learn in a short period of time how to maneuver in that situation, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you learn if in a deep problem.  I thought I had the proper attitude I needed, we lit the lunar landing engine and maneuvered onto the proper course.

Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 Hasselblad image from film magazine 59/R - Transfer from LM to CM; LM undocking prior to reentry
Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 Hasselblad image from film magazine 59/R – Transfer from LM to CM; LM undocking prior to reentry

We still didn’t have enough electrical power to get home, it was only designed for 45 hours, we were 90 hours from home, so I knew we were in deep trouble. The ground called us up and told us they were working on a plan that would get us around the moon, speed us up to get us home before the batteries died out which is the most important thing. They they told us to remember that when we go behind the moon that we will lose communication so be ready to copy these instructions, we’re sending a crew down to the simulator, have them work through these procedures.  I had my two companions sitting right here with me so I miss something, they’ll pick up, all 3 will be listening.

In a little while the moon kept getting bigger and bigger, we’d passed the sphere of influence now.  On the way to the moon you slow down to about 2000mph because the Earth is pulling you back all the time, the moon’s gravity is now in control.  They then said they’d got the procedures, “are you ready to copy?”  I said yes and looked at my companions thinking they were interested – they weren’t even listening, they were looking at the moon, they had cameras in their hands!  I said gentlemen, what is your project here, what are you doing.  They said “Jim, we’re on the far side of the moon, we’re going to take some pictures, we don’t see the far side from the Earth.”  I said if we don’t get home, you won’t get them developed!

Jim, we're on the far side of the moon, we're going to take some pictures, we don't see the far side from the Earth." I said if we don't get home, you won't get them developed!
The far sideof the moon as photographed by Apollo 13.
“Jim, we’re on the far side of the moon, we’re going to take some pictures, we don’t see the far side from the Earth.”
“I said if we don’t get home, you won’t get them developed!”

They took their pictures, I got the instructions and after about 2 1/2 hours after we’d got around the moon, we luit the engine for a second time for over 4 minutes, pushed us faster and faster.  Then we shut off all those other devices you would not be caught up there without, guidance system used up too much power, the computer, auto pilot.  The only thing we had going was the radio to talk to the Earth and a little fan to circulate the atmosphere.  Things were kind of quiet and when things are quiet and you’re in a tough spot with nothing to do, you start to think.  i think it was Jack Swigert that came up and said “Jim, I’ve been thinking, we might be exceeding escape velocity,”  I said that free return course should guarantee us a passage through the atmosphere and safe landing.  Let me explain that you have to enter the atmosphere in a 2 degree pie shaped wedge,with respect to the atmosphere.  If you come in too shallow, you’ll skip out like skimming stones across a pond, if too steep, the sudden deceleration will make you fiery for a few milliseconds and that would be it.

I said to Jack, don’t worry, we have it made.  I was wrong.   The ground was tracking us now and told us we were no longer on the free return, course we’d probably miss the atmosphere by at least 60 nautical miles.  I said thanks a lot, we’d turned off everything, we were flying by the seat of our pants.  they asked me to remember my flight on Apollo 8, we looked at emergency procedures and especially the last one if everything else failed, I’d helped to developed it.  They said we were going to have to use it now.  What that consisted of was for to somehow manually maneuver the spacecraft around without the help of an autopilot, get the Earth in the window of the lunar module, you’ve all seen the Earth from space, daylight, darkness, that line between the two we call the terminator.  In the module of the lunar module I had a gun sight, a cross-hair, if I could somehow maneuver the spacecraft around to superimpose the horizontal line of sight on the gun-sight on the Earth’s terminator, that would then place the engine in a position to steepen of shallow that angle.

Jack Swigert's Omega Speedmaster. 14 seconds later Jack said "stop"
Jack Swigert’s Omega Speedmaster.
14 seconds later Jack said “stop”

I said to Jack that even the clock is not running you have a wristwatch, you tell me when to light the engine, you tell me when to turn them off.  Fred Haise was sick now, but I said to him when that engine comes on, to help stabilize the vehicle, to stop the Earth from going up and down to much with my primary manoeuvre handle, the back up you take and stop sideways too much.  I had on my console 2 buttons, one said start and the other one said stop.  Probably the only time they were ever used, it was a direct electrical link between the battery and the engine.  When he said start, I hit the start button, the engine came on, I jockeyed vertically, Fred jockeyed horizontally and then 14 seconds later Jack said stop, we stopped the engine and waited for the ground to track us to see if we came in for a safe landing.

I have with me now some highlights of that flight (video plays), we made it for congress in 1970:

  • That’s our Saturn V, one of the tragedies of our spacecraft is not to keep doing these vehicles after Apollo, perfect for putting more mass to the ISS.
  • That’s Fred Haise as you probably saw previously, getting suited up…
  • That’s Jack Swigert, probably still figuring out how he got on that flight
  • Werner Von Braun was instrumental in designing this vehicle, those fins are his kind of signature, we can control, the vehicle by gimbaling those 4 engines, much like the V2 which needed fins.
  • Burning fuel now at about 15 tonnes per second 0- about as much as my ’73 Chevrolet did…
  • Jack Swigert is guiding the probe to dock the vehicles, he was a very confident pilot although the movie made him look like he had to earn his wings every day.
  • The interior of the lunar module looks bigger than it really is, that’s because of the wide angle lens
  • Back in the control centre, things are different now, all kinds of contractors now
  • That’s Ken Mattingly, he never got the measles…
  • We were being poisoned by our own exhalation , Carbon Dioxide was building up, we had canisters to remove but in the lunar module we had round ones and in the command module we had square ones, we sued duct tape, an old sock, a piece of plastic to jury rig a square lithium hydroxide canister to a round one.  Ingenuity and initiative came through.
  • Fred’s looking out the window, you can put your thumb up there and you can hide the Earth completely and realise what we really have here.
  • That’s Fred Haise trying to sleep, he has one hand in his blouse. The reason he does that is because on an earlier flight, Pete Conrad was flying in a completely darkened spacecraft, he looked and saw this strange eye staring at him, he thought maybe there is something to these ET’s and UFO’s, turns out his arm had drifted up and it was the luminous  dial on his wristwatch.  That’s how these stories get started…
  • The last crisis of this flight was those 3 parachutes, the pyrotechnics had been so cold for 4 days, if they didn’t fire the chutes would not have come out and we;d have hit the water as such a speed it wouldn’t be survivable.
  • Some 55 countries offered us water recovery assistance, even countries like Paraguay, Czechoslovakia – they don’t even have coastlines!
  • There we are talking to the President, then I’m talking to my wife, Fred is talking to his wife Mary, Jack Swigert was also a bachelor, probably talking to every single steward on Eastern Airlines…
Apollo 13 splashdown
Apollo 13 splashdown

I often wondered what would have happened if Apollo 13 was successful, if there was no explosion, we landed on the moon, picked up some rocks, said some forgettable words and got back safely with 7 successful lunar landings.  The history of Apollo 13 would have been swept into the dustbin of space history and I wouldn’t be here probably.  But for years I was very much disappointed, frustrated that I could not land on the moon, this was the end of my active space career.  But after the years came by, we wrote a book, Lost Moon, then Apollo 13, I thought to myself, if we had landed on the moon, there would be no “Houston, we’ve had a problem” or “Failure is not an option.”  It brings out what people can do when there is a crisis, it finally dawned on me that the best thing could have had happened in our space program at that particular time was to have an explosion like this, that brought up various things, how talented people are, an almost certain catastrophe back to a safe landing. Let me leave you with an old saying I’ve heard “there are 3 types of people in this world, there are people that make things happen, there are people that 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.”

Commander Jim Lovell reads a newspaper account of the safe recovery of Apollo 13
Commander Jim Lovell reads a newspaper account of the safe recovery of Apollo 13

Jim Lovell has given a great presentation followed by a Q & A session by Professor Brian Cox. Followed up with a signature of “Earthrise.”  Another great event from www.space-lectures.com, keep up the great work. Next up in April is Apollo 17 Commander, Captain Eugene Cernan: The Last Man on the Moon.


You may also like some of their other events I’ve attended:

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean


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