50 Years Later, Jim Lovell Remembers the Adventure of It All

While the 90-year-old Lovell is perhaps best known for the harrowing ordeal of Apollo 13, he is proudest of another mission: Apollo 8

Jim Lovell did not write a “goodbye letter” to his wife.

While the 90-year-old Lovell is perhaps best known for the harrowing ordeal of Apollo 13, he is proudest of another mission: Apollo 8. That was the trip which was changed at the last minute in 1968, transformed from a shakedown mission for the Lunar Module, to a never-tried-before trip to orbit the moon itself.

“It’s a good example of leaders who could take chances,” he recalls. “Suddenly NASA hierarchy said, 'Why not change the mission?'”

After all, Grumann Aircraft was behind schedule delivering the LM, and there were rumors that the Russians were going to try an orbital mission before the end of 1968. So what had been planned as a simple trip in Earth orbit, was changed to travel to the moon, orbit, and return.

Just before Christmas, Lovell and crewmates Frank Borman and William Anders left Earth orbit for the first time ever, relying largely on thrust vectors and navigation plans derived by twenty-something engineers working with slide rules.

It still stands as one of NASA’s most daring triumphs. Billions on Earth sat glued to their televisions, as the astronauts entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, beaming back grainy pictures of the moon’s surface, and reading the story of the Creation.

But Lovell laughs now, recalling how Borman and Anders wrote farewell letters to their wives, just in case all the math didn’t work out quite right. He didn’t.

“I said, I’m coming back,” he recalls. “I was there because we were exploring new ground."

The 90-year-old space pioneer stood Wednesday morning at the Adler Planetarium, where his Gemini 12 spacecraft is on display, and he will be honored this weekend for a lifetime of achievement in America’s space program. For Lovell, a trip to the Adler marks something of a full circle model of his career. After all, he says, he can vividly remember trips to the Chicago planetarium from his native Milwaukee, when he would travel to visit his aunt and uncle in Oak Park. 

And what better place for a young Boy Scout, who was working on his astronomy merit badge? 

Fast forward 50 years. And it’s a statue of that same boy as an Apollo astronaut, which greets visitors to the Adler today. Inside, exhibits and Lovell’s personal artifacts commemorate his four flights, two aboard Gemini spacecraft, two in Apollo. 

“I think I was involved in the space program during its golden years,” Lovell says, his eyes still twinkling as he remembers the adventure of it all. 

While beating the Russians was always paramount in NASA’s eyes, Lovell says that sense of the adventure of space was always foremost in his heart. 

One little known fact is that Lovell was Neil Armstrong’s backup for Apollo 11. Armstrong, of course, flew to the moon. Two missions later, Lovell was slated to walk on the lunar surface on Apollo 13, but an in-flight explosion destroyed those plans. It led to the frightening emergency where the three astronauts used their Lunar Module as a lifeboat to return home safely. 

Are there regrets that he never got a chance to take steps on the moon? Yes, he says, he did have those feelings at first. But that changed.

“In actuality, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to NASA,” he says, recalling the miraculous rescue and what the space agency learned about saving a crew. “This was a better flight for our program, than had I landed on the moon.” 

But that also magnifies the genuine courage exemplified by everyone involved in that first trip to the moon back in 1968. 

“Look at 13,” he says. “If that had happened on Apollo 8, there was no Lunar Module to get us home.” 

He still wells with excitement as he recalls those early days in space, like his first trip in 1965 on Gemini 7, strapped to the business end of a Titan missile. 

“The ride on that Titan was something else,” he exclaims. “This was built as an ICBM---we were like the warhead!” 

There is renewed interest in NASA’s glory days of lunar flight. These last four months of 2018 will bring many commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that daring Apollo 8 mission. (The spacecraft itself is on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry). And in a few weeks, a new biopic, “First Man” will premiere, marking the exploits of Neil Armstrong. 

Lovell says he can’t wait. 

“I’m waiting to buy tickets,” he laughs, “to find out if Neil actually landed.”

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