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Feature Story

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"Houston, we have a problem..."

The Apollo Program

Apollo Lunar Spacecraft

Saturn V Moon Rocket

The crewmembers of the Apollo 13 mission

NASA Photo

The crewmembers of the Apollo 13 mission, step aboard the USS Iwo Jima, prime recovery ship for the mission, following splashdown and recovery operations in the South Pacific Ocean. Exiting the helicopter which made the pick-up some four miles from the Iwo Jima are (from left) astronauts Fred W. Haise Jr., lunar module pilot; James A. Lovell Jr., commander; and John L. Swigert Jr., command module pilot. The crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft splashed down at 12:07:44 p.m. (CST), April 17, 1970.

Apollo 13 and me

I went around the moon when I was a few months old. Sort of.

To be precise, my footprint went to space and back on Apollo 13. I've got paperwork to prove it. Recently I had the honor of meeting mission commander Jim Lovell and I was able to thank him for the ride. Capt. Lovell was extremely gracious during our conversation. He didn't remember my footprint. I didn't expect that he would. He and crewmates John Swigert and Fred Haise probably didn't know it was onboard.

The story I've heard about how that little piece of me blasted off with Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970 is rather ordinary. My father's colleague, Phil, worked on photo materials for NASA. Phil's NASA connections let him send a few items for the planned stop on the moon. According to a July, 1970 letter to Phil from the crew, Phil sent apple seeds (maybe he liked gardening) and my footprint.

"The imperfection in Apollo 13 constituted a near disaster, averted only by outstanding performance on the part of the crew and the ground control team which supported them."

Phil sent the letter to my father, writing in the margin: "Sorry we couldn't get Todd's footprint on the moon but at least it went around it."

Anybody who knows the Apollo 13 story recognizes the enormity of that understatement. Two days after launch an oxygen tank explosion thwarted the mission and presented Lovell, Swigert and Haise with the starkest reality of space exploration: they might die more than 200,000 miles from home.

Apollo 13 mission patch

NASA Photo

Apollo 13 mission patch

Most people facing such grim circumstances couldn't function. Astronauts, thankfully, are different from the rest of us. The preface to the Apollo 13 Review Board's June, 1970 report says it all:
"For these missions to succeed, both men and equipment must perform to near perfection…That this system has already resulted in two successful lunar surface explorations is a tribute to those men and women who conceived, designed, built, and flew it… Perfection is not only difficult to achieve, but difficult to maintain. The imperfection in Apollo 13 constituted a near disaster, averted only by outstanding performance on the part of the crew and the ground control team which supported them."

That crew, working under unimaginable stress with a team on Earth that included organizations that are now part of Boeing, did their tasks with focus, determination, and courage. They defied the longest of odds, and they made it home.

Because they did, some forty years later Lovell found himself being thanked by another of the countless people touched by Apollo 13, although perhaps the only one whose footprint was with him on the remarkable journey.