A genuine hero in the annals of the American space program, James Lovell served as pilot for NASA's Gemini 7 mission and commander of Gemini 12 before facing his greatest challenge as commander of Apollo 13, which he returned safely to Earth after a system failure which nearly claimed the lives of all aboard the craft. Lovell's heroics on the Apollo 13 mission, which later served as the basis for Ron Howard's Oscar-winning 1994 film of the same name, helped to preserve Lovell's status as one of the greatest figures in the history of the space program, of which he had been a key part since 1962. Over the course of his decade-long career as an astronaut, Lovell logged a record-breaking number of hours in space while participating in some of the most historic events in manned space flight. But it was his command of Apollo 13, and his actions that defied the odds to return the craft and crew safely to Earth, that truly minted James Lovell as one of America's bravest exploration heroes.
Born March 25, 1928 in Cleveland, OH, James Arthur Lovell, Jr. was raised by his mother in Milwaukee, WI following the death of his father in a car accident. He developed an interest in rocketry and flying at an early age, and after attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years, moved on to the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1952. Upon completion of pilot training with the Navy, Lovell entered a six-month test pilot training course at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, from which he graduated first in a class that included future astronauts Wally Schirra and Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr. All three men were subsequently selected as potential candidates for Project Mercury, which sought to put a human in orbit around the Earth. Only Schirra was selected for what would become the Mercury Seven, who would fly on all of NASA's manned orbital spacecraft in the 20th century. Lovell was excluded for a temporarily high bilirubin count in his blood, and returned to the Naval Air Station for the next four years.
In 1962, Lovell was selected as part of the "New Nine," a group of astronauts selected by NASA for the Gemini and Apollo programs that included Conrad, Neil Armstrong and Frank Borman. Initially selected as the backup pilot for Gemini 4, Lovell became pilot of Gemini 7, which broke endurance records with its 14-day mission, culminating with the first rendezvous in space by manned spacecraft when Gemini 6, piloted by Wally Schirra, came within a foot of Gemini 7. After serving as backup pilot for Gemini 9A, he assumed his first command with the final Gemini flight, Gemini 12, during which Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin completed the first completely successful umbilical EVA (extra-vehicular activity), or spacewalk, in history. Lovell then reteamed with Borman to join William Anders on Apollo 8, which made them the first humans to leave Earth's orbit and directly see the far side of the Moon. Their craft entered the lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, during which pictures of the surface of the Moon were broadcast back to Earth for television broadcast.
Lovell was scheduled to command Apollo 14, but he and his crew, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, were assigned to Apollo 13 after the mission's original commander, Alan Shepard, was pulled for more training after a lengthy grounding period. Apollo 13 lifted off on April 11, 1970 with the intention of having Lovell and Haise land on the Moon. Two days later, a damaged heater coil destroyed an oxygen tank on Apollo 13 and damaged a second, causing a dramatic loss of stored oxygen and electrical power and all but insuring loss of life for its crew. Lovell and his team used the Lunar Module aboard the spacecraft as a lifeboat to provide power and oxygen. Lovell and his crew, with the help of the NASA ground crew, re-established the flight's return trajectory to safely pilot Apollo 13 back to Earth on April 17, 1970. During the return trip, Lovell was required to manually control the Lunar Module's thrusters and engine to stay its course. Lovell would retire from the Navy and the space program three years later, with 715 hours of time in space, a NASA record until 1973, as well as the unconfirmed status as one of three humans, including his Apollo 13 crew mates, to have traveled the farthest distance away from Earth. In addition, Lovell was one of three astronauts to travel to the Moon twice but never set foot on it.
Lovell entered the private sector through the Bay-Houston Towing Company, which made him their CEO in 1975. After making a brief cameo in Nicolas Roeg's science fiction classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976), he was appointed president of Fisk Telephone Systems before joining Centel Communications. Lovell remained with the telecommunications company until retiring in 1991, after which he served as president of the National Eagle Scout Association. In 1994, Lovell penned Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which became the basis for Ron Howard's feature film "Apollo 13." Lovell made a brief cameo in the film as Leland E. Kirkemo, captain of the USS Iwo Jima, which recovered Lovell and his crew mates following the splashdown of Apollo 13. Lovell could be seen shaking the hand of Tom Hanks, who portrayed him in the film. Actor Timothy Daly later played Lovell in episodes of the Hanks-produced miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (HBO, 1998). As he had with many NASA documentaries, he also lent his memories to the acclaimed feature film "In the Shadow of the Moon" (2007).
Lovell, who later opened a fine dining restaurant in Lake Forest, IL that featured many of his personal astronaut artifacts, was the recipient of numerous government and military awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross, and France's Legion of Honor. A Museum of Science in Milwaukee and a Federal Health Care Center in Chicago, IL, also bore his name, as did a street in Milwaukee and, perhaps most appropriately, a crater on the far side of the Moon. In 2006, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago opened an exhibit based on Lovell's life and extraordinary accomplishments.
By Paul Gaita