Anchored in the Solar System: An Interview with Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

Having said that, I didn’t have many of those, because I went into the space program.  But naval officers tend to go into varied fields—more so, I think, than Army officers.  And many naval officers are in government or some aspects of government, and do other things besides command ships.  NASA has expanded into several disciplines now.  You don’t have to be a test pilot anymore.  In fact, only two people command the space shuttle itself.  All other people are mission specialists of some sort.  Several of our astronauts were really not pilots, per se, but were mission specialists.  We’ve even had civilians come in as payload specialists.  So I think the space program is still a very viable field and a great career.

I think people who choose naval aviation take on a certain amount of risk, and there is certainly an element of risk in the space program.  I don’t think it’s as great as it once was.  The shuttle today is much like getting on an airliner.  Occasionally, though, accidents do happen.

Proceedings : What do you think the space program could do differently to attract young people?

Captain Lovell : I think NASA has consistently been accused on doing a poor marketing job.  People ask, “Why are we still sending people into space?  What benefit did we get from the Apollo program?  Why did we spend all that money away from the earth?”  Well, in actuality, we spent all the money on the earth.  But that message has not come across well.  I think NASA should emphasize the advantages of having an active U.S. space program.

Right now, we are no longer threatened by the great Evil Empire, and to some degree that’s bad news for us who try to justify space travel.  Keeping up with the Soviets was a great incentive.  It was intense competition, and we love competition.  As a matter of fact, we were underdogs for a long time.  In reality, that was a good thing, because it spurred our Apollo program.

But we don’t have that now.  What we do have, however, is cooperation.  Several countries are knitted together with the common goal of an international space station.  We have a method of communication among countries on a subject surrounded by little or no controversy.  Many questions remain, of course—how big it should be and who should spend the money—but it’s not that controversial.  And such exchanges create a rapport and lay the groundwork for interaction between countries in other fields, because a camaraderie has already been established, without boundaries.  Those are intangible benefits of an active space program that Congress sometimes misses when the time comes to approach funds year by year.  Our lawmakers fluctuate, depending on which way the winds are blowing politically, without really looking at the big picture.  The space program yields intangible benefits, and that story needs to be told.

Proceedings : It seems that our new relationship with Russia has not been publicized as much as some of the other aspects of the space program.  Why would you say that is?

Captain Lovell : Certainly, docking with the Mir was a very important milestone for NASA, but it was not a milestone in the eyes of the American public like landing on the moon.  This is earth orbital.  We’ve been doing earth orbital stuff since Mercury and Gemini, and we’ve had more than 70 shuttle missions now.

We have to realize that this program, like most programs, has matured.  The Russians have a tremendous amount of talent.  They spent most of their money in the past either in space or on the military, to the detriment of everything else.  So it would be foolish not to tap their experience and knowledge.  And if we’re going to spend a lot of money to help them, we ought to get something back for it.

As for publicity and exposure, it’s just a matter of time.  The more things we do together, the more stories about them will find their way into the papers.  Knowledge will ultimately get back to the public, which I think will be more responsive.

Because of the book [ Lost Moon (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994] and, more so, the movie [“Apollo 13”], I found out just recently that the silent majority in this country, the people who obviously don’t write to their congressmen, are in favor of the space program.

A lot of people I talk to now weren’t even born when I flew.  Anybody younger than 25 years old wasn’t around for Apollo 13.  But I find they still are interested.  They learn about it in school.  A perfect and very visible example is a guy by the name of Tom Hanks.  He was a closet astronaut.  He really wanted to get into space, knew the names of all the astronauts, all the space flights.  When he finally got in the acting business, he wanted to play an astronaut.  He finally got his chance.

Proceedings : President John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry to land on the moon seemed to unite all Americans in that pursuit.  If the same challenge were set forth today regarding Mars, for example, what do you think the ultimate response would be?

Captain Lovell : Well, in reality, it was set forth.  Back on the 20 th anniversary of Apollo 11 in Washington, President [George] Bush did set somewhat of a goal for going to Mars.  But it was not the same rallying cry that President Kennedy had made.  I’m fully convinced Kennedy made that statement because of the political situation he faced at that particular time.  The Soviet Union obviously had an edge on us scientifically, and we were asking ourselves why we didn’t have an educational system that produced people who could do what the Russians were doing.

So President Kennedy had to make a very bold move, and this was one way he saw that he could do it.  It really is a shame that he did not live to see his goal accomplished.  I think he probably had doubts that this would actually come to pass, but in 1961 he had to give Americans something to look forward to, a goal that would be unique.

Proceedings : It may take a political competitor to get us in that mind-set again.

Captain Lovell : We also need a Congress and public that say this is what we ought to do.  Nothing today would prevent us from going to Mars, nothing technical, at least.  The Russians have had people in space now for well over a year, working out the procedures to keep the people healthy, but not so much to go to Mars; it’s to come back to the earth and live under the influence of gravity again.

But all it takes is effort, time, and money to do the job.  All the systems active today can be used to go to Mars.

Proceedings : We just need the check.

Captain Lovell : Yes, we need the money and the will to do it.  Right now, we’re concentrating on the space station, which has, I think, important applications in the diplomatic as well as the technical arena.

Proceedings : Two schools of thought seem to prevail concerning the future of space exploration.  Some say that, since we’ve been to the moon, we should focus our efforts more outward to other planets.  Others say there is more to do on the moon, specifically, that we should land on the moon again to gain public support to go elsewhere.  We have also heard discussions of colonizing the moon.  What are your thoughts on that?

Captain Lovell : The studies I’ve seen indicate that the moon can possibly be used as a training base for a Martian mission.  Which of the two schools of thought has more merit depends on what set of scientists you listen to.  Geologists were very disappointed when Apollo 18 and 19 were canceled.  Some people in NASA, basically the engineering types, wanted to cancel the program after Apollo 11.

Then there are the scientists who say that we have to find out more about the solar system and do probes to the other planets, and to the satellites of other planets.  These two groups are at odds, and many of the differing opinions involved robotics.  “We don’t need people for these missions,” some say.  “Let’s concentrate our existing funds on unmanned, robotic systems.  Then if we lose them, it’s not a traumatic situation.”

That argument will continue.  We’ll probably reach a compromise at some point.  I think we will go back to the moon, but not before the next century.  Right now, the only way we can sell Congress is to show a return on the investment.  This is how the shuttle came into being.  Originally, it was only one part of a two-pronged space effort; one was the shuttle and the other was the space station.  The shuttle was merely the transportation device to travel to the space station.  At that time, Congress was not about to fund two programs, so our lawmakers elected to build the shuttle first and the space station later.

The time for the space station has come.  From a macro position in space, we will learn more about the earth and bring a quicker return on the investment.  A lot of people cannot understand the point of going to the moon.  We brought back moon rocks, and 20-some years later we are examining them, trying to figure out what we have.  They probably raised as many questions as they answered.  It’s amazing.

Proceedings : During the Apollo 13 mission, you must have experienced a feeling of detachment from earth, which would certainly be inevitable on a mission to Mars.  Do you think the phenomenon will be a factor in such far-flung missions?

Captain Lovell : I don’t really believe that to be as much of a problem as a lot of people have surmised.  I recall flying an F8U before I got to NASA.  For the very first time we were wearing the early Navy pressure suits that would inflate if we lost pressure above 50,000 feet.  The Navy psychiatrists at that time started doing studies on detachment.  They concentrated on what happens above 50,000 and 60,000 feet.  Would you suddenly feel detached from the earth, much like a diver who experiences rapture of the depth and doesn’t realize how long he’s been down—or which way is up—and suddenly either doesn’t care or gets so enamored with what’s going on that he forgets the situation?

Well, nothing like that ever happened flying airplanes.  Then we started going into earth orbit.  NASA, among other things, had a lot of faith in psychiatrists.  They invited several to interview us after we came back from our flights.  They would send the psychiatrists out to the ship, and as soon as we came on board they would start interviewing us subtly to see if we had any problems.  I can recall one instance after Gemini 12, when I was in the wardroom having lunch.  A psychiatrist was sitting directly across from me.  By this time, with my two flights, I had logged 440 hours, which was more time in space than anybody in the world.  So I happened to know why this fellow was watching me.  Myself, I was just happy to be back on earth.  As I was explaining some of the things we did and saw, I had one of those heavy Navy wardroom forks in my hand.  I waved it up in the air—and left it up there.  I had done that for 440 hours.

Proceedings : It didn’t stay there, did it?

Captain Lovell : No!  It came crashing down onto the table.  You should have seen the eyes of the psychiatrist.  Boy, they really lit up.  But he had a smile on his face.  He’d finally found something to report.

We never really experienced anything I would refer to as detachment in earth orbit.  We never felt any detachment in my two flights to the moon.  On Apollo 8, up to when we cut the engine and were anchored to the moon, we did hope, in the back of our minds, that the engine would fire again.  Otherwise, we would have been a satellite of the moon—permanently.  But that’s the risk you take.  It’s no different from being launched off an aircraft carrier and you get a cold cat shot.

I don’t think detachment will be a factor in going to Mars.  Based on time, the size of the ships, and how acclimated one can get to life in space, missions to Mars or Venus and other solar system trips will be possible.  Of course, you can’t land on Venus, but you can go around it.  You’d never be able to get to the nearest star, which is Alpha Centauri—four light years away.  If ever we can figure out how to travel 186,000 miles a second, it would take us four years to get there.

Proceedings : We’re not at Star Trek yet.

Captain Lovell : That’s right.  Einstein said that, as time slows down, mass increases.  If we ever got a chance to come back, the earth would have changed millions of years.  Nothing would be the same.  So I think we’re anchored here in the solar system.

Proceedings : Getting back to robotics, what role will humans play in the future?  Can we do it all with robotics?

Captain Lovell : We can do a lot with robotics, no doubt about it.  In fact, I think the Naval Research Lab is making a very simple, inexpensive probe for either the moon or Mars.  But I don’t think anyone has developed a computer as inexpensive and complicated as the human brain.  When things don’t work as they’re supposed to work, as happened on Apollo 13, human beings are still part of the loop and are very, very important.

I don’t think we’ll ever lose the human desire for adventure and exploration into the Last Frontier—space.  People are going to be there whether it’s financially expedient or not or whether it’s worthwhile or not.

Proceedings : Without that excitement, getting public support will be a challenge.

Captain Lovell : Yes, without people involved, the public doesn’t get much enamored with the program.

Proceedings : Were you aware that people on earth were hanging on every report on what you guys were doing in Apollo 13?

Captain Lovell : No.  We got our communications strictly through the capsule communicator.   Even when we landed, the recovery ship had been out to sea for about a week.  Not until we got back to Hawaii did the tremendous impact of this flight begin to dawn on us.  Of course, I made one of the traditional goofs.  We were on vox—hot mike—when I said, “It will be a long time before we have another moon mission,” or something to that effect.

Of course, it took the poor administrator a couple of days to convince the news media that, “what he really means is…”  When I got back, I was confronted with the same thing; that was always the first question.

Proceedings : The film “Apollo 13” should impel a lot of excitement—not short-lived excitement, let’s hope—with the public.

Captain Lovell : Even though I was worried at first, I was happy with the way it turned out.  Ron Howard did a great job of directing.  When he approached me about doing a movie based on the book, I told him that the ABC television network produced a docudrama in 1971 called, “Houston, We Have a Problem.”  They used Apollo 13 as a backdrop, but they focused on four fictitious flight controllers.  That was the main story.  One of them had marital troubles, one of them had child-support problems, one of them had a heart attack, and the fourth one’s grandfather died.

I told them they ruined a good story.  It had nothing to do with Apollo 13, even though the real story had all the drama required to make a good TV program.  They didn’t have to make up that stuff.  I wrote scathing letters to ABC and to NASA for allowing them to use the facilities.  When Ron Howard approached me, I told him to look at the ABC program first.  “If you’re going to do the same thing,” I said, “forget me, because I don’t want to be any part of it.”

Proceedings : The big question for many viewers was, “If I know how it ends, how can I stay interested?”

Captain Lovell : He did a great job of keeping the suspense going, and all the incidents in that movie are true.  He didn’t have to hype anything.  His main job, his main concern, was, “What do I throw out?”  When he did the first edit, he had a four-hour movie.  Universal said, “No way are we going to have a four-hour movie.”  So he got it all down to a two-hour-and-15-minute movie.  That’s why I tell people that they’ll appreciate the movie more if they read the book first.

Proceedings : As far as the general public is concerned, do you have any concern that the movie itself will become the historical record?

Captain Lovell : Well, there’s always that chance, just like the movie “Patton.”  When you think of General George Patton, what image comes to mind?  George C. Scott, right?  I’ve kidded Tom Hanks, saying, “Look, you’d better start learning how to write my name, because when all these photographs come for signatures, I’m sending them to you.” 

To answer your question, if it has positive results, a positive influence, I couldn’t care less.

Proceedings : At least the story is out there.

Captain Lovell : The true story is out there.  That’s the reason why I wrote the book.  I was very fortunate to get a great co-author, Jeff Kluger, who had never written a book before.  I had never written one, either.  We both wrote technical journals, but he worked for Discover magazine and had a degree in journalism.  He wrote to me to say he wanted to write a book on Apollo 13.  I said that I wanted to do it, too, and that we should do it together.  That’s how it came to pass.

Proceedings : In the book, you and Mr. Kluger give high praise to Jules Bergman at ABC News for going through some of the training that the astronauts went through and for being empathetic to what it was you were doing.  What did you think of the general news coverage back then, and what do you think of it now in comparison?

Captain Lovell : I thought the news coverage in those days was very positive.  My wife Marilyn won’t give the same accolades to Jules Bergman, only because he was, after all, a newsman.  Apollo 13 was Doomsday for Jules—only a 10% chance of getting back, the whole business.  But he did go through all the training to be fully up to speed.  Marilyn would rather have listened to Walter Cronkite, who had a more fatherly approach to everything.

I think they’re covering it pretty well today, too.  But you have to realize that human nature says that repetition means people get complacent, and people got complacent about Apollo 13.  This was the third lunar-landing mission, but none of the networks carried it.  The movie showed some of the subtle things—guys yawning, one of the guys looking at the baseball game on the side.  They were all waiting to shut down for the night, because we were going to go to sleep.  It was just another day at the office.

Today, with more than 70 shuttle flights, I don’t think one network carries shuttle launches.  Maybe CNN does, because they think they have an “in” if something goes wrong.  For the Challenger accident, they were right there.  If something unique happens, like the Mir docking, they will cover it.  And that was, I think, adequately covered.  The Hubble telescope repair also got some coverage.  These are all great events.  The public just doesn’t understand.  It was the same way with Apollo 13.  For many years people did not appreciate what really went on to get the spacecraft back home again.  I think a lot of people don’t understand the successful docking between an ancient space station and a shuttle, or the repair of a telescope out in space, or the capture of a satellite.  Again, these are good examples of humans taking over when robots were incapable of getting the job done.

Proceedings : Do you think we have too many scientists and not enough aviator types?  Do the astronauts today, pardon the phrase, have the “right stuff?”

Captain Lovell : I wouldn’t want to separate between scientists and aviators.  I think the people who go into the program—whether they are geologists, physicists, doctors, or pilots—all need a certain amount of adventuresome, risk-taking spirit.  They’ve got to be pioneers, regardless of what their discipline is.  We don’t need people who know just how to fly airplanes.  We do need people who can adapt to an ancient Mir space station and to eating Russian food.  They’ve got to learn to be survivors.

Proceedings : It’s our custom to give our interviewees a parting shot.  Here’s your chance to address anything we have not covered.

Captain Lovell : I have a couple of things.  Number one is the fact that I am very proud to be part of the naval establishment.  I think the Navy in all aspects has provided a foundation for space activities in this country.  I think our space program, however it forms in the future, will be an important factor in the overall operation of this country.

NASA has the ability to create new technologies.  It creates new industries and new products.  And it is very much a diplomatic tool. 

I recall vividly, when Sputnik was launched, the great outcry questioning why we did not have an adequate system to do the same thing.  It was that way for a long time.  I think the majority of the people today feel that NASA still plays an important role in the U.S. government’s efforts to keep this country a leader.  So I hope Congress realizes that, and the administration realizes that, so they can stop quibbling year in and year out and vacillating so much that we don’t have a clear direction for what we should be doing in the future.



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