His name and face graced the front page of nearly every newspaper and news magazine in the world. People were glued to their televisions and radios just to keep up with what he was doing. Millions of people were praying for him and his crewmates.
Today, few know his name and he doesn’t have a prayer of being recognized unless he’s announced at an event. He was the keynote speaker March 13 at just such an event at Space Center Houston. A full house turned out to hear Haise speak about his days on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission as part of the space center’s Thought Leader Series.
The Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11, 1970, and was to be the third moon-landing mission. A mishap on the way crippled the spacecraft and endangered the lives of Haise, Jim Lovell and John “Jack” Swigert as they hurled toward a moon they would no longer be able to set foot on. Their “routine” mission became an epic struggle for survival that captivated the world. In 1995, a movie about the mission directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks became a smash hit and painted with broad strokes a picture of what the adventure was like.
Haise, now 84, was able to color in many of the details during his talk at Space Center Houston. The event was hosted by Daniel Newmyer, vice president of education at Space Center Houston, who presented questions to Haise during the hour-long talk.
Haise was born in Biloxi, Miss., in 1933, and early in life wanted to be a sports reporter. He was the sports editor of his high school newspaper and did the same in junior college before his education was interrupted by the Korean War.
“I joined up to fly airplanes when I had never been in an airplane in my life,” he said.
He punted his sports writing career once his love of flying got off the ground. Haise, like many of his NASA colleagues, came to the space agency from a military background. He was selected as an astronaut in 1966 as part of the fifth astronaut group.
His first assignment with NASA was on the back-up crew for Apollo 8 – the first mission to take humans around the moon. One of those humans was his future commander, Jim Lovell. Haise was assigned to the back-up crew when Michael Collins became ill. He joined Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as back-ups and would have advanced with them to Apollo 11, but, “Unfortunately as it turned out, Mike Collins got well.”
His second assignment was on the back-up crew for Apollo 11, where he served as Aldrin’s back-up as the lunar module pilot.
“So I ended up serving another back-up assignment as Buzz Aldrin’s back-up on the Apollo 11 crew with Jim Lovell and Ken Mattingly at the time,” he said.
As the rotations went, back-up crews became prime crews three flights later. That would have put them on Apollo 14, but they were bumped up a flight to allow Alan Shepard more time to train after having had surgery to correct an inner ear problem.
Lovell, Haise, and Mattingly trained for the mission, but Mattingly was grounded after being exposed to the measles.
“Jack joined our crew two and a half days before launch,” Haise recalled.
His ability to do that was a testament to NASA’s training protocols.
“It proved out the methodology at that time that the prime and back-up crews did pretty much the same thing,” he said.
Haise said they were all confident in Swigert’s ability.
“We had done the preparation … we knew our business, we were confident that we could handle anything short of catastrophic,” he said.
About three-fourths of the way to the moon, the crew had just finished filming a television program and were stowing gear when flight controllers called Swigert and asked him to stir the oxygen tanks. He did and an electrical short caused the second tank to rupture.
“They call it an explosion. It was not an explosion, fortunately,” Haise said. “The oxygen tank had a short and an over-pressurization and somewhere a seam burst. It built up pressure in that compartment and that blew off a quarter panel of the spacecraft. If it had been an explosion there would have been shrapnel and I wouldn’t be here today because behind the very thin wall where those tanks were, is where the propellant tanks were. So fortunately we didn’t have a tank explode.”
The shockwaves from the rupture flipped several switches, closing off valves and shutting down two of the power cells. They couldn’t be re-started.
“There wasn’t any Plan B waiting around to handle all of the things that needed to be handled,” he said.
Although the astronauts’ lives were endangered, the true heroes of Apollo 13 were the hundreds of men and women working on the ground in mission control to bring the crew back safely. The crew acknowledged that by placing a mirror from their flight on the wall of historic mission control.
“Mirror was for looking at things you couldn’t see,” Haise explained. “We wanted that to be in honor of the people at mission control – many I talked to after the fight, I figured they got less sleep on the ground than I got in flight – it was an incredible effort for some people. Some people told me they didn’t go home, they just lay down on the floor in the hallway … It was obviously an appreciation of that effort that was made during our flight to get us home.”
A plaque under the mirror reads: “This mirror, flown on Aquarius, LM 7, to the moon April 11-17, 1970, returned by a grateful Apollo 13 crew to reflect the image of the people in mission control who got us back. James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise.”
“I hate to admit it, but grateful is spelled wrong,” Haise confessed.
Although Apollo 13 went down in history as a successful failure, there were no Apollo missions without their glitches.
“There were problems on every flight. In fact two other flights we almost aborted on, Apollo 14 and 16,” Haise said.
After the moon landing ended, Haise looked into the data from each flight.
“Apollo 13 had the second to least number of anomalies. It had a big one,” he said to great laughter. “Apollo 17 had the least of all of the missions.”
After Apollo, Haise helped develop the space shuttle and flew the first test flights of the Enterprise off the back of the 747 that now sits in front of the Space Center Houston with a replica space shuttle on its back. He and Gordon Fullerton made three test flights with Enterprise. In 1978, Haise retired from NASA and took a job with Grumman Aerospace Corporation.
Today he lives in Mississippi and works with the nonprofit Infinity Science Center, a counterpart to Space Center Houston.
As for the movie, Haise praises the job they did, though he is quick to make note of inaccuracies and exaggerations.
“Ron Howard told me NASA gave him all the air-to-ground transmissions and he listened to all of that. ‘It sounded to me like you never had a problem. We had to put some of that stuff in there to humanize you,’” he said.
A question all the Apollo-era astronauts get is how they feel about humans going back to the moon.
“NASA right now, I wish we were further along in doing things farther out – exploration if you will – back to the moon because we really did a very cursory look at that feature with six landings,” he said. “We had six landings at very select spots that geologists chose based on what they thought the geologic returns would be and tell them more about the cosmology of the moon. There’s a lot more there to have looked at and surveyed, and of course another favorite topic has been about going to Mars, which has for a long time been talked about. I had hoped we’d have the similar type of support we had during the Apollo era. The right things aligned to make sure the president, Congress, the general public, was in favor of the mission that would allow it to be financed.”