Legendary NASA astronauts descend on Space Center Houston to toast new Apollo 13 statue

For a few hours on a cloudy Saturday, April 17, titans walked among mere mortals at Space Center Houston.

Fifty-one years to the day of their historic splashdown, Apollo 13 NASA astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise greeted a bronze statue celebrating their momentous return to Earth after almost six harrowing days and near catastrophe.

The two surviving astronauts (the third, Jack Swigert, died in 1982 at age 51 of cancer), were joined by Apollo 13 flight directors Gene Kranz, Gerry Griffin, and Milton Windler. (Another flight director, Glynn Lunney, passed away on March 19.)

To formally dedicate the seven-foot bronze statue, the men and their families raised a glass to toast the work crafted by artists George and Mark Lundeen and Joey Bainer.

A shining moment

The statue, which debuted in February at Space Center Houston’s Rocket Park, captures the moment Lovell, Haise, and Swigert stepped off a recovery helicopter and onto the USS Iwo Jima, a United States Navy assault ship.

That scene was watched around the globe on April 17, 1970 and marked one of the greatest achievements in human space flight. (Notably, in the blockbuster film Apollo 13, Lovell himself plays the Iwo Jima’s officer who greets Tom Hanks — who plays Lovell — as he steps aboard the naval vessel.)

The right stuff

Still as icy cool as their space days, Lovell and Haise brushed off praise and even joked as they sat down with the media. “I think the greatest feeling was when we hit the water and water splashed over the window, and I looked at Fred and said, ‘Hey, I think we made it,” Lovell quipped, adding that it was “an unusual flight.”

Haise, who suffered a severe urinary tract infection during the flight, recalled that after grueling hours in the Odyssey capsule, in which instruments froze, that upon return to Earth, the capsule was still cold at splashdown. So, it was “nice to be in a nice, South Pacific environment.”

Despite his “smiling face,” at the time, Haise had “chills and a fever. And I missed the big party on the ship,” he noted. “They had a cake and ice cream with the crew on the hangar deck and I went to sick bay. I was happy to have that successful landing after a lot of challenges to getting us back.”

Failure is not an option

Later dubbed “ill-fated” and even “cursed” by some historians and media outlets, the Apollo 13 mission — initially ignored at launch by audiences at the time as a routine moon mission — quickly became a global rallying point. An early explosion in mid-flight forced the crew to bypass landing on the moon, and by orders of Kranz, orbit the moon and slingshot back to earth.

Nearly every juncture presented myriad problems, deftly solved by Mission Control, NASA’s technical staff, and the astronauts.

Despite his own heroics, Lovell instead pointed to his Earth-bound team in Houston. “We relied on Mission Control,” he told CultureMap. As deftly depicted in the Apollo 13 film, Lovell was forced to calculate complicated logistics of transferring the guidance systems from the command module to the lunar module — by hand. “That required mathematics,” Lovell said. “I had to call up to Mission Control to check my arithmetic.”

Flight director Griffin matter-of-factly declared, “we never thought about not getting them back — we never discussed it. We were gonna get them back.”

Work the problem

Kranz, who spearheaded the ups and downs with his now-famous “work the problem” mantra, sums up the Apollo 13 mission as a “story about people” and “the human factor.” He astutely summed up the flight — and all its pitfalls and subsequent victories — as “probably one of the best examples America has ever seen of crisis management.”

With NASA’s Artemis mission set to land a man and woman on the moon, obvious questions emerge as to what future Artemis flight leaders can learn from the Apollo 13 crews. “The Number One message is you’ve got to be ready for anything,” advised Griffin.

As for the gleaming statue, Lovell called it “really fantastic,” noting that it “has a story for the future people coming in here, especially the astronauts we do not know yet, those who will come in the years ahead.”

“I think it tells the story of the cooperation between the various aspects of NASA and the space industry to do the missions they were designed to do and how they work together to complete them.”

A parting message

As he recalled looking at his home from the orbit of the moon, Lovell, the 93-year-old space pioneer who lives in Illinois and may have made his final trip to Houston, offered a parting message to future generations, one that is even more compelling given a global pandemic, environmental issues, mass extinctions, and human strife:

“The earth is a grand oasis in space.”

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