Background of an Astronaut
Jim Lovell entered the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1946 under the Naval Aviation College Program (also known as the “Flying Midshipman Program”). The program entailed a seven-year commitment that involved two years of study at a college or university, followed by three years of flight training and active duty (during which the midshipmen would be promoted to ensign after two years), followed by a return to the college to finish schooling and retain eligibility for a commission. As Lovell entered pre-flight training in 1948, the Navy’s budget had been dramatically cut and those in the program were being urged to get out, as there was a likelihood that no flying billets would be available (the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 changed that). Instead, Lovell applied to and was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy, entering in 1948 with the Class of 1952.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree and being commissioned, Ensign Lovell commenced flight training at Pensacola, Florida, in October 1952. He was designated a naval aviator on 1 February 1954, and was assigned to All-Weather Fighter Squadron 3 (VC-3, later re-designated VF[AW]-3 in 1956) at NAS Moffett Field, flying F2H-3 Banshee jet night fighters. Lovett deployed with a squadron detachment to the western Pacific aboard carrier Shangri-La (CVA-38), the second carrier converted to an angled-deck configuration, which enabled much safer operation of jet aircraft. He then provided instruction for pilots transitioning to the new F3H Demon jet fighter.
In January 1958, Lieutenant Lovell entered the test pilot training course at Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland, graduating first in his class six months later, ahead of future astronauts Pete Conrad and Wally Schirra. Later in 1958, all three would be selected to be part of a pool of 110 military test pilots selected as potential astronauts for the Mercury Project. Schirra would subsequently be selected for the “Mercury Seven,” but Lovell and Conrad were not. Lieutenant Lovell continued with test pilot duties and then was assigned to the NAS Patuxent River Electronics Test (later Weapons Test), where he became an F4H (later F-4B Phantom II) project pilot. In 1961, Lovell received orders to Fighter Squadron 101 (VF-101) Detachment Alpha as a flight instructor and safety engineer, when NASA put out a call for a second group of astronauts to serve in the Gemini and Apollo programs. Lovell re-applied and, in 1962, was selected, along with Conrad, as part of the “New Nine” astronauts to augment the original “Mercury Seven.”
Lovell’s first space flight was as pilot of Gemini 7 (the fourth manned Gemini mission) with command pilot Frank F. Borman II. Launched on 4 December 1965, the mission lasted for 14 days (206 orbits) to test the ability of the crew and the craft to function that long in space, setting an endurance record that lasted until the Skylab program in the 1970s. Gemini 7 also served as the rendezvous target for Gemini 6A, launched on 15 December, with Schirra as the command pilot. This marked the first rendezvous in space between two manned spacecraft (the original Gemini 6 launch had been scrubbed when the unmanned Agena target vehicle was not ready for launch). Gemini 6A was recovered by Wasp (CVS-18) in the Atlantic east of Florida on 16 December, while Gemini 7 remained in orbit, suffering a number of mechanical breakdowns that resulted in only partial power, which did not threaten mission safety but provided valuable lessons learned. Gemini 7 splashed down in the Atlantic within 6.4 nautical miles of the recovery ship, also Wasp.
Lovell returned to space for his second mission as command pilot of Gemini 12, the last Gemini mission, with Buzz Aldrin as pilot (he would become the second man to set foot on the moon). The Gemini 12 mission launched on 11 November 1966 and lasted for just under four days. It involved three extra-vehicular activities during 59 orbits, and the fourth space docking with the Agena target vehicle. Gemini 12 splashed down in the western Atlantic on 15 November 1966 and was recovered by Wasp.
Lovell’s third space mission was as command module pilot for Apollo 8, with Frank Borman as mission commander and William A. Anders as lunar module pilot (except there was no lunar module). Due to delays with the lunar module, the Apollo 8 mission was changed from an earth orbit test flight of the module to an orbital moon flight. Apollo 8 was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to be boosted into orbit by the massive Saturn V rocket, necessary to achieve earth orbit escape velocity. Launched on 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit and reach and orbit the moon.
Apollo 8 commenced lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 and made ten orbits in 20 hours at an altitude of 70 miles above the moon surface. On the third orbit, Anders took one of the most famous photographs of all time, an “Earthrise” above the moon’s surface. On the ninth orbit, Apollo 8 broadcast black-and-white TV footage of the moon as the three crewmen took turns reading (and broadcasting) the first ten passages from the Book of Genesis. (As a kid, I remember this vividly and found it even more amazing than the actual moon landing, which seemed a bit anti-climactic after the Apollo 8 mission). The most tense part of the mission was the critical rocket burn on the far side of the moon that would return Apollo 8 to the Earth, when the spacecraft was out of communications range. When Apollo 8 came out of the radio shadow with a successful burn, Lovell re-established contact with, “Please be informed that there is a Santa Claus.”
Apollo 8 splashed down as planned on 27 December 1968 in the Pacific southwest of Hawaii. The command module was initially dragged by the parachutes and flipped upside down, but the mechanism for righting the capsule in such an event worked and, six minutes later, the capsule flipped right side up. Navy swimmers reached the capsule in 43 minutes and, 45 minutes after that, the capsule was on board the recovery ship, carrier Yorktown (CVS-10).
The Apollo 8 mission was an international media sensation and it is estimated that a quarter of the people alive on the Earth at the time saw the moon footage either live or in delay. The moon footage was the most-watched TV event in history to that point and even won an Emmy. The three astronauts were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968 (beating out Richard Nixon). After the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, along with race riots and massive anti-Vietnam war protests, the mission was a much-welcome bit of good news, although prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed suit objecting to the astronauts’ “public prayer” in space. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it, citing lack of jurisdiction in outer space.
Lovell was the back-up mission commander for Apollo 11, but since Neil Armstrong didn’t get sick, Lovell remained on Earth and Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon on 21 July 1969.
Lovell’s fourth space mission (the most by any astronaut to that point) was as mission commander for Apollo 13, intended to be the third lunar landing and the next one after the “All Navy” (Conrad, Gordon, and Bean) Apollo 12 landing in November 1969. The command module (Odyssey) pilot for Apollo 13 was initially Lieutenant Commander Thomas K. Mattingly, Jr., but he was replaced due to an inadvertent exposure to German measles (Mattingly had no immunity) by Jack L. Swigert, Jr., who had an Air Force background. The lunar module (Aquarius) pilot was Fred W. Haise, Jr., who had been a U.S. Marine Corps pilot before getting out of the service, later joining the Air National Guard and becoming an Air Force pilot.
Apollo 13 lifted off on 11 April 1970. At a distance of 180,000 miles from Earth, a fire ignited in an oxygen tank in the service module, most likely caused by damaged electrical insulation that sparked. The liquid oxygen turned into high-pressure gas that burst the tank, blew a large hole in the service module and caused a leak in a second oxygen tank. After Swigert made the initial report, Lovell followed up moments later with “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” (The later movie misquotes this; “Failure is not an option” is also a Hollywood creation.) Within two hours all onboard oxygen was lost, which disabled the hydrogen fuel cells that provided electrical power to the command and service modules. The crew moved into the lunar module, which had independent battery power, oxygen, and propulsion, and would essentially serve as a “lifeboat.” At this point, the sole objective of the mission was to get the astronauts back safely to Earth; the planned moon landing was aborted.
As there was no way to “turn around,” the only way for the astronauts to get back to Earth was to continue to the moon and use the lunar module’s propulsion and the moon’s gravity to slingshot around the moon on a trajectory back to Earth. The extent of damage to the service module was not fully known by either the Apollo 13 crew or Mission Control in Houston. This resulted in numerous technical challenges in getting the astronauts back that would later make a great movie (Lovell considered his portrayal by Tom Hank in Apollo 13 pretty accurate). One result of the trajectory was that Apollo 13 reached a point in space that is farther from the Earth (137 nautical miles beyond the moon) than anyone has gone. The return to Earth required two sensitive manual course adjustments in order to give the capsule the best chance of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The severity of the damage became fully apparent when the service module was separated from the command module a few hours before re-entry.
Concern for the astronauts’ safety literally gripped the Earth. Pope Paul VI offered prayers. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution asking all U.S. businesses to observe a simultaneous pause so that employees could pray for the astronauts. Over 40 million Americans (about one out of five at the time) tuned in to the live TV broadcasts by all three networks of the re-entry and splash- down of the capsule, which was touch and go even through the entry into the atmosphere. Apollo 13 splashed down safely on 17 April in the South Pacific, southeast of American Samoa, only 3.5 miles from the recovery ship, Iwo Jima (LPH-2), after a mission duration of 5 days, 22 hours, 54 minutes, and 41 seconds. The whole nation breathed a sigh of relief, and President Nixon quickly awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo 13 crew.
Jim Lovell retired from the space program and the U.S. Navy in March 1973 with the rank of captain. Lovell was one of only 24 men to travel to the moon. He was one of only three men to travel to the moon twice; however, unlike John Young and Eugene Cernan (both naval aviators), Lovell never set foot on the surface. His cumulative 715 total hours in space (269 sunrises) was a record that stood until Skylab 3 in July–September 1973. With the rest of the Apollo 13 crew, he still holds the record for the farthest distance from Earth. He is still alive and well today at 92.
The U.S. Navy in Manned Space Flight: A Short Summary
The following list includes all Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions from the first sub-orbital Mercury mission (Mercury 3) in May 1961 to the last Apollo mission (Apollo 17) to the moon in December 1972. For each mission, I’ve listed each astronaut who was or had been a naval aviator, to include U.S. Marine Corps pilots. All missions during this period were recovered at sea by U.S. Navy ships, noted in the list. Naval aviator Walter M. Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions (three total missions.) Naval aviators James A. Lovell, Jr., and John W. Young each flew four total missions in the Gemini and Apollo programs; Young walked on the moon and Lovell did not.
There were six manned Mercury missions, each with one astronaut. The first two missions were sub-orbital flights and the last four orbited the earth. The list gives launch date, mission, Navy astronaut (if one,) and recovery ship.
- 5 May 1961: Mercury 3 (Freedom 7), Alan B. Shepherd, Lake Champlain (CVS-39)
- 21 July 1961: Mercury 4 (Liberty Bell 7), Randolph (CVS-15)
- 20 February 1962: Mercury 6 (Friendship 7), John H. Glenn, Jr. (USMC), Noa (DD-841)
- 24 May 1962: Mercury 7 (Aurora 7), Malcolm “Scott” Carpenter, Intrepid (CVS-11)
- 3 October 1962: Mercury 8 (Sigma 7), Walter M. Schirra, Kearsarge (CVS-33)
- 15 May 1963: Mercury 9 (Faith 7), Kearsarge (CVS-33)
There were ten manned Gemini missions, each with a two-man crew, a command pilot and a pilot. One U.S. Navy Gemini astronaut, Elliot M. See, Jr., was killed in the crash of his T-38 jet on 28 February 1966 along with astronaut Charles Basset.
- 13 March 1965: Gemini 3. John W. Young, Intrepid (CVS-11)
- 3 June 1965, Gemini 4, Wasp (CVS-18)
- 21 August 1965, Gemini 5, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., Lake Champlain (CVS-39)
- 4 December 1965: Gemini 7, James A. Lovell, Jr., Wasp (CVS-18)
- 15 December 1965: Gemini 6A, Walter M. Schirra, Jr. (second mission), Wasp (CVS-18)
- 16 March 1966: Gemini 8, Neil A. Armstrong, Leonard F. Mason (DD-852)
- 3 June 1966: Gemini 9A, Eugene A. Cernan, Wasp (CVS-18)
- 18 July 1966: Gemini 10, John W. Young (second mission), Guadalcanal (LPH-7)
- 12 September 1966: Gemini 11, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. (second mission), Richard F. Gordon, Jr., Guam (LPH-9)
- 11 November 1966: Gemini 12, James A. Lovell, Jr. second mission), Wasp (CVS-18)
There were 11 manned Apollo missions, each with a three-man crew, a mission commander, a command module pilot, and a lunar module pilot. Apollo 7 and 9 were earth orbit missions. Apollo 8, 10, and 13 went to the moon, but did not land. Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 conducted moon landings. Apollo 12 was the only “All-Navy” Apollo mission. Navy astronaut Roger B. Chaffee was killed in a flash fire in the command module during a rehearsal for Apollo 1 on 27 January 1967, along with astronauts Gus Grissom and Ed White.
Of 12 astronauts who have walked on the surface of the moon, seven were naval aviators (or former naval aviators): Neil A. Armstrong (Apollo 11); Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., and Alan L. Bean (Apollo 12); Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Edgar D. Mitchell (Apollo 14); John W. Young (Apollo 16); Eugene A. Cernan (Apollo 17). Two of the U.S. Air Force astronauts who landed on the moon were U.S. Naval Academy graduates: James Irwin (Apollo 15) and Charles Duke (Apollo 16).
- 11 October 1968: Apollo 7, Walter M. Schirra, Jr. (third mission), Walter Cunningham (USMC), Essex (CVS-9)
- 21 December 1968: Apollo 8, James A. Lovell, Jr. (third mission), Yorktown (CVS-10)
- 3 March 1969: Apollo 9, Guadalcanal (LPH-7)
- 18 May 1969: Apollo 10, John W. Young (third mission), Eugene A. Cernan (second mission), Princeton (LPH-5)
- 16 July 1969: Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong (second mission), Hornet (CVS-12)
- 14 November 1969: Apollo 12, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. (third mission), Richard F. Gordon, Jr., Alan L. Bean, Hornet (CVS-12)
- 11 April 1970: Apollo 13, James A. Lovell, Jr. (fourth mission), Fred Haise (USMC and USAF), Iwo Jima (LPH-2)
- 31 January 1971: Apollo 14, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (second mission), Edgar D. Mitchell, New Orleans (LPH-11)
- 26 July 1971: Apollo 15, James Irwin (USAF, but USNA graduate), Okinawa (LPH-3)
- 16 April 1972: Apollo 16, John W. Young (fourth mission), Thomas K. “Ken” Mattingly, Charles Duke (USAF, but USNA graduate), Ticonderoga (CVS-14)
- 7 December 1972: Apollo 17, Eugene A. Cernan (third mission), Ronald E. Evans, Jr., Ticonderoga (CVS-14)
Sources: most information is from NASA website mission pages and Navy Office of Information biography of James Arthur Lovell, Jr., dated 6 November 1967, available on the NHHC website; NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS) for information on U.S. Navy recovery ships.
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