Houston Matters

A Successful Failure: 50 Years Later, Former Astronaut Jim Lovell Reflects On Apollo 13

The ill-fated lunar mission launched 50 years ago this weekend and gave us the infamous misquotation, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Astronaut Jim Lovell
Astronaut Jim Lovell flew on four space missions, including the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission.

Fifty years ago this weekend, Apollo 13 launched on its ill-fated mission to the moon.

It was to be the third mission to land American astronauts on the lunar surface, but, not long into the mission, the three-man crew of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise faced a crisis. An oxygen tank explosion severely damaged their spacecraft some 200,000 miles from earth.

Apollo 13 Crew
The Apollo 13 crew (L-R): Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise.

“I didn’t know what happened at first,” Lovell tells Houston Matters senior producer Michael Hagerty.

Forever Misquoted

Lovell looked at his two crew mates and realized they had no idea either. That’s when Swigert uttered a phrase that would be forever misquoted and associated with Houston — for better or worse.

“Okay Houston we’ve had a problem here,” Swigert said over radio communication with Mission Control. When NASA asked them to repeat themselves, Lovell chimed in too.

“Uh, Houston we’ve had a problem,” he said.

That problem quickly took shape: the normal supply of electricity, water, and light on the vehicle’s command module were lost. When he looked out the window, Lovell could see a gas escaping from the side of the spacecraft.

“It didn’t take much intelligence on my part to realize the gas escaping was oxygen,” he said. “So that clinched it.”

In an instant, the original mission to the moon was aborted while crews in Houston worked frantically around the clock to eventually bring the astronauts home safely.

Damage to the Apollo 13 Service Module
Damage to the Apollo 13 Service Module.

Lovell was essentially NASA’s most experienced astronaut at the time that he commanded that mission. He says the key to his crew’s success under duress was their mindset — staying calm and positive while addressing each challenge as it presented itself.

“If we’d been waiting for a miracle, well we’d still be up there waiting for that miracle to happen,” he said.

I Made Him Rich

The harrowing story was immortalized in the 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Lovell.

Many people, when they think about Lovell, might think of Tom Hanks. Lovell said he’s OK with that.

“I made him rich,” he said.

Lovell thought the film was pretty accurate, but, regarding that famous — and infamous in the Bayou City — line, “Houston, we have a problem,” Lovell said his only regret is not trademarking it.

A Successful Failure

While the mission didn’t achieve its original purpose, he still remembers it fondly.

“We said shortly after that flight that it was a successful failure,” Lovell said. “I think it will stand out as one of the episodes in the history of American spaceflight. And it will also stand out as a success to see how taking an almost insurmountable problem and then with the two sides — Mission Control working closely with the flight crew — turned a failure into a success.”

Lovell is a veteran of four space missions and received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At age 92, he lives in suburban Chicago.

Captain Jim Lovell in 2018
Former astronaut Captain Jim Lovell in 2018.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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