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Astronaut Jim Lovell: Apollo 13 Commander

Jim Lovell
Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission, flew into space four times.
Credit: NASA

For years, Jim Lovell was the world's most-traveled astronaut. Lovell flew into space four times in the Gemini and Apollo programs, racking up more than 700 hours in space. His record stood until the Skylab space station's first crew surpassed it in 1973.

A Navy astronaut, Lovell was actually turned down for the space program initially due to a minor medical issue. But he was accepted in plenty of time to participate in NASA's quest to reach the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lovell's most famous mission was Apollo 13, which saw the spacecraft crippled by a devastating explosion while en route to the moon.

From aviator to astronaut

Lovell, a Cleveland native, began his career in the U.S. Navy doing night landings in jets on aircraft carriers. A colleague once nicknamed him "Shaky" as a joke, knowing the moniker held negative connotations for a pilot. But Lovell was actually quite steady-handed.

Famously, Lovell once made a landing in a dark F2H Banshee near occupied Japan after accidentally shorting out the lights in his cockpit. He found the carrier by following the churn of plants in the carrier's wake.

In 1958, Lovell graduated from the Navy's test pilot school, beginning several years of testing fighter aircraft and other jets before the types were authorized for use by less experienced aviators.

The job was dangerous, and casualties were high, but it was among test pilots that NASA first looked for astronauts in the early 1960s. Lovell was turned down because of excess bilirubin, a byproduct of liver function.

When Lovell protested, according to his biography, "Lost Moon," the response he received was: "I have five men out there won't don't have a bilirubin problem, and 26 more on the way who probably don't."

Fortunately for Lovell, he had a second try for NASA when another astronaut selection opened up; he was chosen in 1962.

Endurance and moon missions

At NASA, Lovell served as a backup for Gemini 4 — the second flight of the Gemini program — before being assigned as a "prime" crew member on Gemini 7. That flight launched in 1965.

The flight was an endurance mission, in almost every sense of the word. Lovell and his commander Frank Borman spent more than 330 hours — nearly two weeks — in a spacecraft that was similar in dimensions to a phone booth. While they did have experiments to keep them busy, monotony and close quarters made the spaceflight a challenge.

Lovell distinguished himself on this mission, though, earning a command position on Gemini 12. He oversaw the last flight of Gemini, which included spacewalks by Buzz Aldrin (who later became the second man on the moon.)

The next step for Lovell was the moon. In December 1968, Lovell was reunited with Borman and crewmate Bill Anders on Apollo 8 for a Christmastime journey to orbit Earth's closest large neighbor.

It was the first time any human had journeyed so far, and millions watched the astronauts deliver a Christmas address where they read a Biblical passage and described the scene unfurling beneath them.

Attempting a moon landing

Lovell's last mission was Apollo 13 in April 1970. He was in command of two rookies, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. The spaceflight got off to a challenging start when just days before launch, crewmember Ken Mattingly was pulled due to exposure to the German measles.

Lovell had misgivings, but after spending more time training with the capable Swigert was satisfied that the mission could proceed.

Apollo 13 was the third targeted moon landing. All appeared normal until the evening of April 13, when the astronauts were just a day away from landing on the moon. A stray spark ignited an oxygen tank within the command module, heavily damaging the spacecraft.

The three men huddled in the undamaged lunar module — a spacecraft designed for two men to land on the moon — for most of the next four days. To save energy, only the most essential systems were kept powered up. The men were cold, uncomfortable and dealing with constant minor crises. But with the help of Mission Control, they arrived safely back on Earth on April 17, 1970.

Lovell retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973 and held a series of industry positions afterwards. He also provided guidance for the movie"Apollo 13," based on his biography "Lost Moon." Now retired, Lovell still travels for space events and sometimes gives interviews.

Tourists in Chicago can check out Lovell's extensive space memorabilia collection in Lovells of Lake Forest, a steakhouse just north of the city run by his son Jay.

— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor

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