Space Craft | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Space Craft 

In his years as an astronaut James Lovell traveled twice to the moon; once he almost didn't come back.

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Jim Lovell, the only person to go to the moon twice without landing, is standing before a few hundred fidgety high school students in the Museum of Science and Industry's auditorium, telling them how he rode the train from Milwaukee to Chicago one day in 1943 to buy supplies for a high school science project. After looking in the phone book under "chemicals," he explains, he found himself in an 11th-floor office on Michigan Avenue.

"The receptionist brought me into a big, huge room with a plush carpet, and this guy was sitting behind a big desk. And I was 16 years old. I said, 'I'd like to buy some sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate.' He says, 'You do? What do you want them for?' I said, 'Well, I'm building a rocket.' And he says, 'Do you know what those ingredients make?' I said, 'Rocket fuel?' He said, 'Gunpowder. This is the wrong place. We sell chemicals by the carload here, not by the pound.'"

Lovell finally got his fuel and launched a rocket with the help of two friends and a chemistry teacher. "It went about 80 feet and blew up. But the teacher encouraged me, and I just kept on going until I finally got into the space program."

Lovell, a bespectacled, graying man in a gray business suit, is trying hard to fire the imaginations of these students, but as he speaks they chuckle and whisper to each other. The teachers shoot them dirty looks, but the kids seem none too impressed with Lovell's stories of events that took place years before they were born, delivered with all the cocky test-pilot flash of a North Shore businessman addressing a Rotary Club meeting.

Proceeding gamely, he describes his December 1965 spaceflight initiation aboard Gemini 7. To test the human body's ability to endure weightlessness, Lovell and Frank Borman orbited the earth for an unprecedented two weeks while sitting six inches apart in a cabin "about the size of a garbage can." They had one exciting day, when Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford came up in Gemini 6 to meet them in the first-ever space rendezvous, but for much of the flight Lovell and Borman had little to do except gape at the earth, read paperbacks (Lovell knocked off Drums Along the Mohawk, Borman read Mark Twain), and attempt some semblance of personal hygiene.

Lovell spares the kids the details and moves on to his November 1966 Gemini 12 flight with Buzz Aldrin (who would make the first moon landing with Neil Armstrong two and a half years later). This last mission in the Gemini series, originally planned to last only two days, was extended to four to accommodate a bulging flight plan that included three space walks by Aldrin. Lovell tells the kids that on the last day of the unexpectedly long flight he and Aldrin "ran out of just about everything," including drinking water. "Here we were, going over the Pacific Ocean, and we didn't have any water at all!"

The murmuring of the students grows louder.

Next Lovell talks about Apollo 8, the first manned spaceflight to leave the immediate vicinity of earth and venture out into what NASA types call "cislunar space." As command-module pilot, Lovell became the first person ever to navigate a spacecraft to the moon. He tells the story a little awkwardly, almost talking down to the kids. "We were the first three people to see the back side of the moon. It took us three days to get there. It was in December 1968. We were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve. We didn't see Santa Claus up there."

A few of the students hiss.

Undaunted, the ex-astronaut plunges into the story of his last and most hair-raising space adventure, as commander of Apollo 13 in 1970. His mission included making the third U.S. moon landing, but he says that when his ship was about 200,000 miles from earth, still en route to the moon, "I heard a hiss-bang, the spacecraft rocked back and forth, and then everything was quiet. I looked at Fred Haise to see if he knew what had caused that noise. And I could tell from Fred's eyes that he didn't know. Then I looked at Jack Swigert, the third member of the crew. His eyes were as wide as saucers."

A chain reaction of circuitry mishaps had triggered an oxygen-tank explosion that blew one side of the spacecraft clean off, rendering the main rocket engine useless and knocking out the ship's main supplies of oxygen, electricity, and water. Without oxygen, electricity, and water, the astronauts knew they would die a slow, torturous death, choking on their own exhaled carbon dioxide before finally losing consciousness and ending up in a huge, elliptical earth orbit.

There were emergency reserves on the ship, but they were needed for reentry and anyway would last only a couple of hours. But Apollo had been designed as a sort of dual spacecraft: one astronaut was to orbit the moon in the primary ship, the command module, while the other two descended to the surface in a lunar module. Their lunar module and its supplies were virtually untouched by the explosion. Even so, it had been designed only to keep two people alive for two days. No one knew whether its electricity, water, and oxygen could be stretched to support three people for the four days needed to get home.

Deciding that even returning to earth dead would be preferable to orbiting dead in space forever, the crew hurried into the lunar module and fired its engine to adjust their course so that when the spacecraft whipped around the moon its gravity would shoot it back at the earth like a slingshot. Their hastily improvised trajectory had the incidental consequence of carrying them 248,655 miles from earth, farther than anyone else before or since.

After firing the engine again a few hours later to speed themselves home more quickly, the crew had to conserve precious electricity. "We shut off all the electronic equipment that you wouldn't be caught out there in space without. Nothing was running except the radio to talk to the earth and a little fan to circulate the atmosphere. Things were very, very quiet." While mission controllers in Houston spent the next four days frantically improvising emergency procedures, the astronauts shivered in half darkness and near-freezing temperatures, hoping that their instrument panels, wet with condensation, wouldn't short out. Haise developed a serious kidney infection and fever.

As Lovell tells this tale the kids get even more restless. A teacher stands up and admonishes his students to pipe down, but they comply fitfully. Only when Lovell announces that he'll narrate a short compilation of 16-millimeter footage from this flight does he really get the kids' attention. They fall silent as the lights dim and the film begins, with a shot of a 330-foot-tall Apollo/Saturn 5, the largest flying machine ever built, rising slowly from the Florida launchpad.

"That vehicle is carrying five and a half million pounds of high explosives," Lovell says. "Those five engines are producing seven and a half million pounds of thrust. And we're burning fuel at the rate of 15 tons per second."

A few students gasp aloud.

"About as much as my '73 Chevrolet, I think," Lovell cracks. He pauses, probably anticipating laughter. But these kids are too young to remember 1970s gas guzzlers. They just sit slack-jawed, watching the rocket accelerate into the sky.

"It's like riding a high-speed freight train down some rickety old tracks," says Lovell. "As those engines down at the bottom gimbal ever so slightly, you're rocked back and forth at the other end."

The scene abruptly changes to the lunar module floating in space, its sides glistening in the sun like crinkly aluminum foil. Lovell explains that it was designed to operate only in space and on the moon, not to return to earth. "Look how flimsy its skin is!" he exclaims. "You could put your fist through it if you wanted to."

There's a shot of a younger Lovell floating inside the dark, shadowy cabin, wearing earphones and a worried expression. "Notice I'm rubbing my hands. It kept getting colder and colder. Our heart rates got up pretty high at the time of the explosion. Mine got up to 130. But then I removed all my biomedical instrumentation from my chest so Houston wouldn't know how scared I was."

Lovell's crew mate Swigert appears on the screen, brandishing a large plastic bag of yellow liquid. "Here we're looking for a place to store the urine," says Lovell. "We couldn't dump it over the side."

A few girls in the back rows groan with disgust.

Finally the screen shows the Apollo 13 command module dropping gently into the Pacific. "The last milestone was to make sure the three parachutes would open, because the explosives that open up the parachutes had been cold soaked in space for four days and we weren't too sure that they would even ignite. But they did."

The film ends, and the students applaud, exploding into a bustle of jabber. Lovell smiles and raises a finger. "Let me just mention one more thing, and that's--"

But his words are lost in the din. The students are already out of their seats and milling toward the exits. A woman rushes onstage and takes over the mike, asking in a loud, authoritative teacher voice, "Does anybody have any questions?"

The kids respond as one. "Noooooo!"

The woman anxiously surveys the chaotic crowd and suddenly smiles. "Yes?" she says brightly, pointing toward one of the front rows. "Is that a question? Or are you just stretching?"

Later in the day Lovell heads for the museum's Henry Crown Space Center to autograph copies of his new book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13--soon to be a major motion picture. When movie director Ron Howard expressed concern about the difficulty of simulating zero gravity, Lovell encouraged him to build a movie set inside a NASA zero-G training aircraft. The pilot flies a series of parabolic arcs, and each time the airplane rides over the top and into a long dive the actors (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise) get 20 to 30 seconds of weightlessness--just long enough for a take. "They did an orientation flight to see whether they liked it or not," says Lovell. "There'll be some artistic license--there has to be in a movie--but aside from that, Ron Howard is trying to make this as authentic as possible."

When Lovell arrives 30 or 40 people are already lined up to meet him. They're a motley assortment: retirees, pilots, college students, children. Lovell takes a seat at a table in front of his old Apollo 8 command module, on permanent display here. The first few people in line approach him shyly, pushing their books toward him without speaking.

A grandmotherly woman comes forward and gushes, "I was watching on TV when you read from the Book of Genesis while you were circling around the moon on Christmas Eve!"

"Ah," responds Lovell, with a smile.

A cheerful, beefy middle-aged man presents his book and growls, "What do you say about those people who claim the moon landings were faked in a movie studio?"

Lovell shrugs and smiles. "Not much you can say, really."

Most folks have copies of Lost Moon, but some also have other items for him to sign, like space photographs and moon maps. A serious man produces a mint-condition NASA Apollo 8 press kit with several black-and-white glossies that Lovell patiently autographs, one by one. Other people have brought color reproductions of the famous Apollo 8 photo that shows the half earth rising above the lunar horizon.

"Which one of you actually took that picture?" a young woman asks Lovell.

The ex-astronaut smiles guardedly. "Well, that's something of a controversy."

A few people laugh. Lovell's Apollo 8 crewmates, Frank Borman and Bill Anders, have both claimed they took the photo. In his book Lovell says the picture was "probably" shot by Anders.

After a half hour of book signing Lovell suddenly stops and looks up. "Anybody have a pen? This one's skipping."

"Maybe you need one of those special zero-G pens," someone jokes, referring to an expensive item with a pressurized cartridge often advertised in science magazines.

Lovell grimaces. "You know what we used in space? Ordinary felt-tip pens! They worked perfect!"

Most of the people here seem pretty down-to-earth, but there are a few space geeks. One hovers over Lovell, grinning and barraging him with questions. Finally the geek sneaks behind the table and hollers to his wife to take his picture with the surprised Lovell, who barely acknowledges the camera.

Several feet away another space buff is absorbed in conversation with a strapping, deep-voiced fellow in his 30s who says he's a pilot for American Airlines.

"What's the air pressure inside a jetliner?" asks the space buff.

"Well, that depends on your altitude," booms the pilot. "See, the natural pressure of the atmosphere decreases with altitude. So as you climb in your airplane you also have to ease your cabin pressure to some extent, or else your fuselage can bust open like an overcooked sausage."

What was the pressure and composition of the air inside an Apollo spacecraft? they both wonder. The pilot strides over and asks Lovell, who replies that the Apollo maintained an atmosphere of pure oxygen at about one-third sea-level pressure. "That was a mistake," he says, explaining that the Russians had a better system: a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere that required heavier equipment in the spacecraft, but reduced the hazard of a fire like the one that killed the Apollo 1 crew during preflight tests in 1967.

The hatch of the Apollo 8 command module is open, and anyone who wants to can peer inside. Though huge by 1968 standards, it's actually mind-bogglingly small--11 by 13 feet, with barely enough room for a person to stand upright. It's hard to believe that this tiny shell was bolted to the top of a 330-foot rocket and shot at the moon with Lovell and two others strapped inside--and hard to believe that anyone would have the nerve to risk his neck in such a venture. The astronauts apparently had a lot in common with medieval crusaders, mountain climbers, fire fighters, and high-rise window washers. One suspects the cold war was less a motivation than an excuse, and one imagines the Apollo spacecraft propelled less by liquid hydrogen than by the same bizarre urge that built the Egyptian pyramids and the Gothic cathedrals of France. As Lovell has publicly suggested, the desire to fly to the moon was ultimately irrational.

In his flashy 1979 bestseller The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe offered a rather one-dimensional characterization of the typical astronaut as a prideful daredevil who never admits fear. But not all space pilots have fit that mold. Brian O'Leary called spaceflight "a foolish game of Russian roulette" in his 1971 autobiography, The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, and Russian cosmonauts have been particularly candid about the paralyzing anxiety one can experience while donning a pressure suit, waiting for lift-off, or floating out of a hatch into open space. Such fears are not irrational. Astronauts know better than anyone that their job bristles with unpredictable hazards, any one of which can suddenly turn their spacecraft into an orbiting tomb--or, as Lovell rather sarcastically puts it, "a permanent monument to the space program."

Now the Apollo 8 is a dark, hulking can of inert wires, gauges, and switches. Its outer skin is charred from the fires of atmospheric reentry, and its gray inner bulkhead suggests the interior of an old submarine. Peering into the hatch, you can see all the way back to the poorly illuminated lower equipment bay, where the sextant Lovell used to navigate the ship is mounted in the wall below the entrance to the docking tunnel. Next to the sextant is a state-of-the-art-for-1968 navigation computer that boasts only a tiny fraction of the storage capacity of the average modern laptop. A quarter century after the fact the story of the moon voyages may still resonate with the futuristic ring of science fiction, but this tiny ship is already an antique, like Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis or the Wright Brothers' biplane.

Later that afternoon Lovell chatters amiably about his boyhood in Milwaukee, his mother's Czech Bohemian family from Oak Park, his frequent boyhood visits to the Museum of Science and Industry. After leaving NASA and Houston in 1972 he eventually ended up in Chicago as a group vice president at the Centel Corporation. Since retiring in 1991, he's spent most of his time in Texas, though he has a summer home in Lake Forest.

When the conversation turns to rockets Lovell settles into the casual demeanor of a retired soldier telling war stories. "The Saturn 5 we called the old man's rocket. It was a three-stage vehicle; the max G load was four. So you were pushed into the couch about four times your own weight just as the first stage ran out of fuel. On the upper two stages of the Saturn the G load that you felt was less than what you're feeling right now, less than one G. So it was great, a very nice ride. The Titan was lighter and faster, a two-stage vehicle, and it put you eight Gs into your seat, twice as much as the Saturn. It wasn't built for manned spaceflight; it was built for warheads. And when you rode a Titan you sort of felt like a warhead. Sometimes you wondered whether it was gonna put you into low earth orbit or target you to go to Minsk."

Lovell admits that his first space mission, Gemini 7, was not an entirely pleasant experience. "It was a very difficult flight, two weeks in space. Borman thinks it was his worst flight ever. He was worried toward the end because our fuel cells were in bad shape [which could have forced an emergency landing], and he was afraid of not being rescued in the ocean. I assured him that the navy had enough ships that no matter where we came down we wouldn't have to last more than a day in the ocean."

Asked if when astronauts reached earth orbit in the Gemini they really sometimes found loose nuts and bolts floating around in the cabin, Lovell says, "Oh, just a couple. Little washers or something like that. You know, somebody left 'em in the spacecraft. It was always an embarrassment to the people who built it that loose nuts and bolts were still in there, you know, and they were floating around. They have learned to clean up their spacecraft a lot better."

The title of Lovell's book suggests sadness. Does he feel bad when he looks at the moon at night? "Now that I look back on it I'm a little frustrated that I didn't walk on the moon. That was to be the highlight of my career. Of course I was very disappointed. But you know, at the time it was a matter of survival, so I didn't think about that frustration." Anyway, he considers himself lucky. "If the explosion had occurred after we'd detached ourselves and went down to the moon, we would have been anchored. I mean, we would probably have been in lunar orbit forever."

Given some of the close calls he and others have experienced in space, is it inevitable that sooner or later somebody will go up and not come back?

"Oh, I think as we get more and more involved in space activities we're gonna have some accidents in space. You have to realize that we've never had a fatality in space. I mean, no one has ever been marooned under zero gravity."

The Soyuz and Challenger accidents were nasty, but at least the bodies were recovered. The prospect of dead bodies drifting in space, never to return to earth, chills the soul in quite a different way. Lovell is asked how he believes the government and public would deal with such a calamity.

"Well, I think they'd have to learn it at the time," he says matter-of-factly.

And just what would Lovell and his crew have done if they'd found themselves stranded in the void?

"There were no procedures outlined for it. What we had decided was to keep alive as long as possible, send back any information we could, depending on where we were gonna go--and that would've been it. There was no way to rescue us. But we had no poison pills or anything like that. We never thought about how we were gonna, you know, kill ourselves if we wanted to. I mean, if it had gotten real bad, rather than die a slow death we probably would have just opened up the vent valve and let the air out, that's all."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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