Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

It isn't every day you get to sit down with a genuine American hero for an extended conversation about crisis leadership. Today, thanks to a mutual friend, I had the good fortune of doing just that.

Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, agreed to meet with me to talk leadership. We got together at a Starbucks in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he and Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, live on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

Having just turned 90 years old, he struck me as fully engaged, genial, and still sharp. He laughs easily and often, at one point joking that he probably disappoints people because he isn't Tom Hanks. Clearly, he learned long ago to cherish every minute of life.

For those of you who are too young to remember and who never saw Ron Howard's exciting movie starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, here are the basic facts. An onboard explosion in an oxygen tank, fundamentally caused by miscommunication over necessary voltage two years earlier, crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft en route to the Moon in April 1970, only nine months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first persons to set foot on another heavenly body.

Until the explosion and crisis, all three television networks were ignoring this flight. After all, it was "just another" manned spaceflight to the Moon. We had already visited the Moon four times and walked on it twice (Apollo 11 and 12). Lovell himself had already orbited it (Apollo 8), when he and his co-pilots became the first persons to view Earth as a globe, to escape Earth's gravitational field, to see the other side of the Moon, and to view an Earthrise.

On Apollo 13, after assessing the worrisome situation, Lovell radioed back to Mission Control five words that have become iconic: "Houston, we have a problem." For long days afterward, the survival of the three astronauts was in doubt. They were running out of oxygen and burning too much electrical power. Many knowledgeable people, even at NASA, feared for the worst.

The crew — Lovell, Fred Haise, and last-minute substitute Jack Swigert — quickly accepted the fact that . . . 

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