PROVO — The lunar module of the Apollo 13 had no heat shield and was designed to hold two people for a quick landing on the moon — not return to Earth carrying three astronauts.
"After the explosion, I kept counting the crew: one, two, three," Capt. James Lovell said Tuesday during a forum at BYU. "That's when I knew we were in serious trouble."
Lovell, who led the three-man crew of Apollo 13 on its 1970 mission to the moon, spoke about their "successful failure" in which they survived a loss of oxygen, electrical power and propulsion systems but managed to make it home thanks to the teamwork and perseverance of mission control.
The former NASA astronaut also went to space on the Gemini 7 and 12 flights but said the highlight of his career was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. It was there on Christmas Eve that crewmate William Anders photographed "Earthrise" — the first photo of Earth from deep space.
Yet despite his love for space, Lovell said he's not sure he'd apply for the job in today's environment, given that there are only four flights left in the three orbiters before they're supposed to be retired and that funding for NASA's Constellation program, to put a man back on the moon, is in danger of being cut by the government, he said.
"I'm not sure what the future of manned flight for this country is," he said. "I think we're going to be losing a lot of prestige and be sort of considered as a second-rate space country, but that's my opinion."
Lovell, who was played by Tom Hanks in the movie "Apollo 13," explained that their three-day trip to the moon was fine until the third day, when they heard a large bang and red lights began flashing.
An explosion had damaged the electrical system and two of the three fuel cells, which meant a moon landing was out of the question.
The crew was more disappointed than worried until Lovell drifted over to the instrument panel and saw the gauge for the two huge tanks of liquid oxygen — what they used to generate electricity. One gauge read empty and the other needle was slowly dropping.
"(That was something) you'd never see in the normal usage of oxygen on a flight to the moon," he said. "That's when the old lead weight went down in the bottom of my stomach."
After Houston finally accepted that there really was a problem, the three men climbed in the lunar module and Lovell began the difficult job of maneuvering a damaged ship back into the necessary orbit path and waiting for instructions regarding the most effective use of their dwindling battery power.
They were trying to re-enter the atmosphere through a two-degree pie-shaped wedge. Too steep and they'd burn up, and too shallow and they'd skip off like a rock.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I wouldn't have the pleasure of being here at BYU talking to you if I wasn't successful," he said. "We landed in the Pacific Ocean, just about where we should have landed on a normal mission, but we got there a couple days early."
During a subsequent question and answer session, tall freshman Timothy Riser said he had always dreamed of being an astronaut, but since he had exceeded the height requirements, asked Lovell what would be the next best thing.
The audience laughed and Lovell suggested basketball, or perhaps a NASA controller.
"There are three types of people in this world," he said. "People who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who just wonder what happened. Back in the control center in 1970, there were people who made things happen."
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