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Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell speaks with students in RTP

Posted June 9

Jim Lovell discusses his experiences as a NASA astronaut over lunch with students in RTP

Captain Jim Lovell returned to the Triangle recently after kicking off the North Carolina Science Festival to a sold-out crowd at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill in April. He shared his experiences commanding Apollo 13 and piloting the Apollo 8 Command Module with a group of students at Lenovo’s Research Triangle Park campus.

Lenovo sponsored the event in coordination with the NAF Academies of Engineering, which provides industry-specific STEM curricula into high schools across the country, and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF), which was created by the Mercury 7 astronauts to ensure leadership in science in technology through scholarships for U.S. students.

Lenovo provides additional financial support to the ASF through employee contributions matching as well as providing legislative guidance to Congress in the passage of the Apollo 11 Commemorative Coin Act which benefits the ASF, the Astronaut Memorial Foundation and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to fund its new “Destination Moon” gallery scheduled to open in 2020.

The most recent recipient of the Lenovo sponsored ASF scholarship, Sam Jasper, a recent NC State graduate in Chemical and Textile Engineering along with high school students from Charlotte, Sanford, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh joined Lovell for lunch.

Following lunch, students joined Lenovo engineers, who had lined up hours before, for a presentation and Q&A by the 89-year-old astronaut on his experiences as a Navy test pilot and in the second group of astronauts selected for the Gemini and Apollo programs. The program began dramatically with the original trailer for the 1995 Apollo 13 film.

Lovell shared the story of Tom Hanks’ visit to prepare to play Lovell in the film. The flight from the airport in Lovell’s twin-engine Beechcraft to his West Texas home normally took 15 minutes. That night it took 1.5 hours as they identified the stars and constellations recalling the training Lovell and other astronauts completed at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill in the 60s.

Hanks experienced the challenge of stellar navigation aboard an Apollo spacecraft when Lovell pulled out a cut-out of the lunar module window, inviting Hanks to find the same stars that had been programmed into the spacecraft’s computers through the tiny window. You can experience this yourself at the planetarium today in an exhibit on the lower level of equipment used in training.

Though it happened 30 years before most of them were born, the students had some very specific questions about the events aboard Apollo 13. They were also curious about future missions beyond the moon.

Lovell described robotic missions such as the Curiosity rover adding “We know more about the surface of Mars today than we knew about the surface of the Moon when Neil landed on it”. When asked “How close do you think we are to landing on Mars?”, Lovell responded “don't hold your breath … it’s a lot farther and a lot longer that we think."

The veteran of four space flights also took advantage of an audience filled with present and future engineers to go into great detail about how the hydrogen tank that crippled Apollo 13 was originally damaged and how the event changed engineering practices at NASA and elsewhere.

He reiterated his teamwork message shared in Chapel Hill the previous month, giving credit and praise to fellow astronauts on the ground and all the flight controllers and other engineers that worked together to develop the steps needed to get the crew of Apollo 13.

He left everyone in attendance with the message “no matter how bad things are, have a positive attitude.”


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @rtphokie.

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