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Jack Swigert: Apollo 13 Astronaut Turned Politician

Jack Swigert
Jack Swigert was a last-minute replacement on the Apollo 13 crew. he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives but died before taking office.
Credit: NASA

Jack Swigert is an astronaut best known as the command module pilot aboard Apollo 13. But he was thrust into that role by a fluke; the astronaut assigned to that mission had been exposed to the German measles, and NASA decided to quickly reassign Swigert from backup to prime to make sure the mission could go forward.

Apollo 13 was devastated by an explosion in the command module, which was Swigert's ship, but the astronauts and Mission Control successfully worked together to nurse the ship back to Earth and bring the astronauts safely home.

Swigert later resigned from NASA to make a run at politics. He successfully won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Colorado in 1982. He died of cancer, however, before he could take office.

A last-minute switch

Swigert had experience both in the military and with a couple of companies as a pilot. He was an Air Force pilot between 1953 and 1956 and did tours in Japan and Korea, then shifted to work with the Massachusetts Air National Guard and Connecticut Air National Guard. Swigert also worked for North American Aviation Inc. and Pratt and Whitney.

Swigert was selected as one of the so-called "Original 19" astronauts in April 1966, along with future Apollo 13 crewmate – Fred Haise. Swigert's first flight role was as an astronaut support crew for the Apollo 7 mission, the first such one for the Apollo program.

Next, Swigert was assigned to be the backup command module pilot for Apollo 13. It was while he was in this role that he unexpectedly faced a change.

Ken Mattingly, who was command module pilot on the mission, was exposed to the German measles. NASA made the unprecedented decision to yank him from the flight and to replace him with Swigert, just three days before the launch on April 11, 1970.

"[Swigert] knew the command module pretty good. He — it is true — he had not trained for the last month and a half because normally the backup crew at that stage are the gofers," Swigert's commander on Apollo 13, Jim Lovell, recalled in a 1999 oral interview with NASA.

Once Swigert had a few days to train with Lovell and Haise, however, Lovell had praise for his work: "Jack proved out to be a very, very competent pilot."

Taxes and technical problems

It was a whirlwind few days for Swigert, who found himself aboard a spacecraft speeding away from Earth. But there was one important thing he had forgotten to do before leaving home: his income taxes.

"How do I apply for an extension?" he asked from space to those in Mission Control, who began to laugh. "Things kind of happened real fast down there and I need an extension. I'm really serious."

Flight director Glynn Lunney later reassured the astronaut: American citizens who were out of the country received a 60-day filing extension. "I assume this applies," he told the astronaut, who was actually off the planet at that time.

On April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank ruptured in the service module that supported the Apollo 13 command module, the only spacecraft that could bring the astronauts back to Earth.

The astronauts sheltered in the healthy lunar module, Aquarius, for four days as they sped back home. It was cold, uncomfortable and dangerous, but the astronauts made it back alive.

Politics and death

A few years after the spacecraft's successful return, in 1973, Swigert took a leave of absence from NASA to become executive director of the committee on science and technology for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Swigert then resigned from NASA and the committee in 1977 to make a run for the Senate. He lost in the Republican primary to Bill Armstrong, and then became vice-president of B.D.M. Corp. in Colorado in 1979.

Undeterred, Swigert tried again for a government seat to represent his home state of Colorado. He began campaigning for the Republican nomination for Colorado's 6th District, and easily secured it. Swigert was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, however, during his run.

"There are thousands of people out there that believe in me and we're just going to go ahead and win this campaign. That's all there is to it," said Swigert in a press conferenceannouncing his illness.

Swigert was convinced he could beat the cancer, according to a UPI report of the era, because it was initially diagnosed as an easily treatable lymphoma. In the days following, however, doctors realized it was a carcinoma and told him it had already spread into his lungs.

Weeks after Swigert won the election in November, he died of respiratory failure on Dec. 28, 1982. Swigert passed away before he was even sworn in to Congress.

— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor

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