On Sunday 1st November Clare Pheasey and I were lucky enough to attend a lecture in Pontefract organised by Space Lectures at which Apollo 13 astronaut, Jim Lovell, was speaking. At 87 years old, smartly dressed in jacket and tie, he still cuts a dashing figure.
For well over an hour, he stood in front of his audience regaling us with tales of daring and adventure. He was articulate, informative and full of energy and humour
He began describing his role in NASA’s Gemini programme. Gemini 7 was his first flight, during which he spent nearly two weeks orbiting the Earth. We learnt that these early missions were mainly to investigate the impact of micro gravity on the body in preparation for a mission to the Moon itself. At this time two weeks was the longest time that anyone had spent in space. Jim went on to talk about the various tests that he underwent including monitoring calcium levels for two weeks before and after the space flight in order to investigate the effect on bone mineral density. Interestingly, nearly 50 years later, they are still researching this on board the ISS. It seems that we are still not really sure what the long term implications of space travel are on our bones!
Throughout the Gemini space flights, Jim told his audience that he had to wear a pressure pad on his legs which inflated and squeezed his muscles for 2 minutes then relaxed for 6 minutes for the entire orbital mission – a great bore, according to Jim. This was ostensibly to aid venous return of blood from the legs to the heart – whether it was beneficial or not, was unclear.
Another aim, during these first orbital missions was to improve the ability to perform tasks outside the spacecraft. Any extra vehicular activity was proving very difficult for the astronauts, who became physically exhausted in a very short time after exiting the vehicle.
It was at this point in time, Jim told us, that a NASA engineer came up with the idea of using a swimming pool to help simulate the conditions that the astronauts were experiencing in the micro-gravity environment of space. They found a pool and built a copy of one of the space modules where the astronauts, suitably weighted, could work. It was by doing this that they managed to come up with a suitable range of handholds on the spacecraft for the astronauts to grab onto whilst they were outside. Up until, then, it had been extremely difficult to move around. Indeed, he said, they had forgotten about Newton’s third law of motion which meant that any push against the spacecraft would send them moving quite forcefully in the opposite direction, into the vacuum of space.
Following Gemini 7 & 12, Jim talked about how he became part of the first manned mission to the Moon on Apollo 8. Achieving firsts as an astronaut is significant and this for Jim remains a highlight of his career, as he was the first to navigate a space craft around the far side of the Moon. He was clearly animated when talking about seeing these views for the first time – saying that he felt ‘like a schoolboy’
Indeed, it was during this 1968 Apollo 8 mission that astronaut William Anders took his iconic photo: Earth-rise.
Finally, and what we had probably all been waiting for, Jim spoke about his last mission – the ill-fated Apollo 13. He laughed when he informed us that they took off at 13:13 from the Kennedy Space Centre – definitely inauspicious timing.
The events which led up to the launch were interesting. He had, in fact, been scheduled to command Apollo 14 but got bumped up – something he was pleased about, but his wife was not because of the ‘13’. Jim insisted that he wasn’t superstitious though – I wonder if he ever changed his mind?
We were told that it was actually damage caused to a dropped oxygen tank, which caused the catastrophic explosion on board. It was felt by the powers that be that replacing the tank would delay the launch by a month, which would have had a detrimental impact on the race with Russia.
Jim talks about the near disaster that took place with a great deal of humour, but you can clearly see that this man must have had nerves of steel. He joked that while Mission Control were giving him vital instructions to redirect themselves back to Earth, his two companions were taking pictures of the Moon – “Well,” he says, “they were first timers, but I pointed out that if we didn’t get this right, then they wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop their shots!” He also talked a lot in terms of the odds of ‘getting back’ and that as the odds increased so the crew became calmer and more confident – I found it fascinating that they would be so logical when facing their own mortality 1000s of miles from home…
To get back to Earth, Apollo 13 needed to use the gravity of the Moon – known as free return trajectory. Establishing the angle of re-entry is a complex procedure with only a 2 degree window to play with. As the computer systems had been shut down there was no way for the crew to know whether or not they were aligned properly. It soon became clear however, that they were going to miss by 40,000 miles causing the spacecraft to just go back and forth in an elliptical orbit for ever – as Jim said, he didn’t want to end up as a monument in Space.
In the end he had to execute a complex emergency manoeuvre (which he had previously written BUT had agreed its removal from the flight manuals, as it was considered too extreme) to redirect the spacecraft using the Earth’s terminator, a moving line which separates the portion of Earth experiencing daylight from that experiencing night.
Fortunately, for Jim and his crew, this manoeuvre worked and he is here to tell the tale and what a great tale it is!
Following the lecture, we were treated to a Q&A session, which was hosted by Brian Cox – an extra bonus, particularly as Clare very artfully managed to get his signature on one of our space passports! Questions ranged from ‘What kind of space food did Jim eat during his missions?’ to ‘What was it like finally landing the Apollo 13 module?’
I had thought that they ate a kind of baby food onboard the space crafts, but according to Jim, it was mostly freeze dried. Unfortunately though, there was no hot water for rehydration, so although the freeze dried peas were transformed to their original size, they were lukewarm – he didn’t seem to mind much though. I suppose when you have the Moon in your sights, other things pale in comparison!
Brian Cox’s son asked about the reentry of Apollo 13. It was really interesting to hear Jim describing the red glow that he caught sight of as the module entered the atmosphere and the G-force experienced – which at 6g was quite low compared to the 16g he was actually taken up to during training in the NASA centrifuge.
All too soon the event was over and having queued up to get our autographs, we made our way home. But not before knowing the identify of the next of Space Lecture’s speakers:
Gene Cernan – Last Man on the Moon
I just can’t wait until April 2016!