This Week in Wisconsin History

James Lovell and Apollo 13

By - Apr 11th, 2012 04:00 am
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(Photos: nasa.gov)

On April 11, 1970, the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission launched with Milwaukee native and space veteran James Lovell as commander. While it would be the first space mission for crewmembers Jack Swigart and Fred Haise, Lovell planned for it to be his last, ending his career with a moonwalk.

“Back in high school I can recall looking at the moon and thinking about going there,” Lovell said after being accepted into the astronaut program.  “The thought stayed with me after that. Now, all of a sudden, it has become a definite possibility.”

Lovell’s interest in space started while he was a student at Solomon Juneau High School in Milwaukee. A profile of Lovell featured in the April 12, 1946 edition of the Juneau Pioneer documents his enthusiasm, describing him as “a certain tall, blond, handsome, blue-eyed fellow…especially apt at making rockets which don’t quite reach Mars.”

James Lovell

Lovell’s model rocket-launching days as a teenager propelled him to a record-setting career at NASA. After studying engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years, he was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduation, he became a test pilot for the U.S. Navy and was selected by NASA in 1962 for the U.S. Space Program.

Before Apollo 13, Lovell had piloted the Gemini 7 mission, commanded the Gemini 12 mission, and served as the command module pilot and navigator of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to the moon. The launching of Apollo 13 marked Lovell as the first astronaut to voyage into space four times and the first to travel to the moon twice. He also held the record for the most time spent in space. Despite the shortened Apollo 13 expedition, he managed to log 715 hours and five minutes in his career.

Although Apollo 13’s lunar mission was viewed as riskier than the previous two landings, the country’s interest in the space program was waning after Neil Armstrong’s original lunar landing. A headline in the Milwaukee Journal during the early stages of the flight read “Apollo 13 Perfect, A to Zzzz.”

Some NASA employees echoed that sentiment. Nearly two glitch-free days in to Apollo 13’s flight, Joseph Kerwin, the capsule communicator on duty, said that the mission control crew was “bored to tears down here.”

The major television networks seemed to be as well. The astronauts beamed a live feed back to Earth that was scheduled to air live across the country on April 13, but no broadcast networks picked up the telecast, opting to air selected clips from the space show on news programs later while the Dick Cavett Show, I Love Lucy, and live baseball games stole the space show’s spot.

Nine minutes after finishing the live broadcast 200,000 miles from Earth, the flight caught the world’s attention when an oxygen tank exploded on the service module, emptying another tank and knocking out two fuel cells, sabotaging the mission and jeopardizing the astronauts’ lives.

With barely enough oxygen, water, and electric power to make it back to Earth, the astronauts worked together with the ground crew to create makeshift solutions for mounting problems, requiring ingenious uses of the equipment on board. People all over the world held their breath on April 17 as the astronauts re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Lovell was forced to abandon what was supposed to be the pinnacle of his career — landing on the moon — and settle for surviving the trip home.

“That was my goal, for the moon to be the end flight of my career at NASA,” Lovell said in an interview in 2005. “In hindsight…I realized that although I didn’t land on the moon and was disappointed, it was a triumph in a different direction, meaning getting people back from a certain catastrophe.”

More events from this week in Wisconsin history

April 9, 1970: The University of Wisconsin signed a contract with the Teaching Assistants Association, ending a 24-day strike by the teaching assistants and becoming the first university in the country to have a graduate student union. At the height of the strike, 500 TAs did not show up for work while thousands of undergraduate students showed their support by boycotting classes. Under the new contract, TAs were given job security, lighter workloads, sick leave, and the right to assist in curriculum planning.

April 10, 1967: A strike by Division 998 of the Amalgamated Transit Union halted a fleet of 650 buses and forced 160,000 Milwaukeeans to seek other transportation, resulting in a rise of carpooling and hitchhiking, as well as an increase in rush hour traffic and a lack of parking. The union’s 1500 employees resorted to the 19-day strike after their demand for a two-year contract with a 25 cent hourly increase a year was denied by the Transport Company.

April 10, 1937: The Charles A. Krause Milling Company plant in Greenfield explodes, killing three workers and injuring 29 more.  The explosion, believed to be started by an accumulation of grain dust, blew out the east walls of the mill and warehouse, sending slabs of concrete 100 feet away and knocking down electric poles and trolley lines, and causing an estimated $2 million in damages and attracting 100,000 spectators to the scene. Disaster wasn’t new to the Krause Milling Company: the accident marked the sixth time the plant had been destroyed since it was founded in 1903.

April 13, 1927: More than 600 junior high students in Superior joined the strike of 1300 high school students against the dismissal of  Central High School’s English teacher Lulu J. Dickinson. Upset that their favorite teacher had been abruptly fired for criticizing the school board just 10 days before she was set to receive her pension, the high school students took to the streets for six weeks, refusing to return until Dickinson had been reinstated and the members who voted for her dismissal had resigned.

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