Imagine having a front-row seat for the first lunar landing.
Astronaut Jim Lovell, who makes his home in suburban Chicago, had just such a seat, directly to the left of capsule communicator Charlie Duke during the harrowing descent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their lunar module.
“There was a great feeling of relief on the part of the entire mission control team, including me,” Lovell recalls. “You know---they’re already down, we’ve accomplished landing on the Moon, but that’s only half the story!”
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Indeed, the landing had been filled with frightening moments. First the lunar module’s computer kept relaying obscure alarms, which could have led to a last-second abort. Computer experts in mission control waved those off, and gave the green light for the landing to continue.
“What I was amazed at, was how quickly that mission control people analyzed the situation, new the situation, and said yeah, keep going down and taking care of it,” Lovell says.
Then there were the craters. Armstrong was forced to take manual control of the landing, when that same computer guided him to a landing site in a crater filled with boulders.
“Last think you didn’t want to do was land inside a crater!” Lovell says. “Never land on the side of a crater. So he took over manually to keep going forward to find a flatter spot to land a vehicle on.”
That was a good thing. The extra time Armstrong took finding a landing site burned precious fuel. He and Aldrin touched down after a callout by mission control that only 30 seconds of fuel remained---and there are some estimates it may have been as little as 15 seconds.
“Armstrong said, you know, when the gas gauge reads zero you always have a few more gallons,” Lovell laughed. “I took his word for it!”
At that point, Lovell had already flown three times in space---twice in project Gemini and a third flight aboard the trail-blazing voyage of Apollo 8, mankind’s first trip to the Moon. He would later command the ill-fated Apollo 13, which suffered an explosion en-route to the Moon, but became NASA’s greatest triumph when Lovell and his crewmates safely returned.
Now 91, Lovell still lives in suburban Chicago with wife Marilyn, and still gets excited when talks about a space program he clearly loves.
“The thought now is go back to the Moon---learn more about the Moon---get comfortable going to the Moon,” he says. “So it is not what we think of as a real roll of the dice, that we have the infrastructure, and the architecture, to make sure people can get in there to fly to the Moon, stay on the Moon for a while, learn things, and come back again.”
He marvels at the achievements of the unmanned probes on Mars, which have roamed the surface and even retrieved and analyzed rocks, beaming the results back to earth.
“We know more about the Martian surface than Armstrong knew about the lunar surface when he landed,” he says. “That is incredible!”
Lovell expresses frustration that after the triumphs of Apollo, NASA became a program which “retreated to Earth orbit,” but he speaks with hope about the future.
“There’s been a lot of talk about going to Mars and I think that’s what we’re going to do,” he says. “I don’t think we’re going to do it in my time.”
And would he like to make the trip?
He laughs. “Marilyn wouldn’t let me go!”