San Diego Air and Space Museum to Celebrate Apollo 13’s 45th Anniversary: Interview with Francis French and Gordon Permann

Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and Jim Lovell pose for a pre-flight photo days before their mission. Photo Credit: NASA/The Project Apollo Image Gallery via the Project Apollo Archive
Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and Jim Lovell pose for a pre-flight photo days before their mission. Photo Credit: NASA/The Project Apollo Image Gallery via the Project Apollo Archive

2015 is a year full of spaceflight milestone anniversaries, including the 50th anniversaries of the first five crewed Gemini missions (including the first U.S. spacewalk, and first orbital rendezvous) and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), which set the tone for future international space collaborations. Not to be forgotten, the 45th anniversary of Apollo 13, a mission billed as one of NASA’s crowning achievements, will also be celebrated this Saturday, March 21, at the San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM).

The world held its breath during this embattled mission, as three Apollo astronauts faced almost insurmountable misfortune. The museum stated, “During five tension-filled days in the spring of 1970, the Apollo 13 crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert struggled to survive in a crippled spacecraft. They were heading to the Moon, planning to make America’s third lunar landing, when a disastrous explosion not only canceled their plans, but put their survival in serious doubt. Short on power, heat, water, and breathable air, their odds were not good. They made it safely back to Earth because of their own efforts, in partnership with a determined team on the ground who performed ingenious engineering miracles to keep them alive.”

AmericaSpace had the opportunity to speak to Francis French and Gordon Permann of the museum about the focus of this event, which will honor not just the crew members aboard the spacecraft, but will pay tribute to the flight controllers, support crew, and thousands of people on the Earth who contributed to its safe return.

AmericaSpace: This event celebrates the 45th anniversary of Apollo 13, famously known as a “successful failure.” Why do you think it’s so important to mark this anniversary – what implications did this mission and its outcome have for Apollo, and the future?

Francis French: There are a significant number of people who worked on these missions who want to come to these events…and it’s a generation we’re losing, sadly. Also, this is a mission that was overlooked for a long time. All of a sudden, the movie [1995’s Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon] came out, and it became one of the most popular stories… It has really been transformed. It’s much more in the public consciousness than Apollo 11, I think.

Days after surviving one of the space programme's most harrowing ordeals, Apollo 13 astronauts (from the left) Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise work on their debriefing. Photo Credit: NASA
Days after surviving one of the space program’s most harrowing ordeals, Apollo 13 astronauts (from the left) Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise work on their debriefing. Photo Credit: NASA

AmericaSpace: Is there a panel discussion planned? If so, who will be taking part in it, and what kinds of topics will be discussed?

French: We’re going to have four different panel discussions. It’s almost impossible to get these guys to speak from a script; they’ll say what they want to say. So within the knowledge that we’re dealing with a bunch of unruly schoolkids [laughs], we will encourage them to tell a chronological, lucid story about what happened.

We’re not talking just about the Apollo 13 mission. We’ll be talking about Apollo, Mercury, Gemini, Skylab, ASTP, and the future. The great thing is we’ll have a mix of people, starting with those with NASA before it became NASA – when it was NACA – right up to people who flew SpaceShipOne, looking at the next generation of spacecraft. There will be people with experience in all kinds of different areas.

The key thing is we’ll have all four flight directors from Apollo 13, and the two surviving crew members. If we only had that, it would be an incredible night. We also have Sy Liebergot, who was there at the moment of the explosion, and Jack Lousma [NASA astronaut, who also flew on Skylab 3 and STS-3], who took that historic ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ call. We have many people who were key players during the mission in many different ways.

AmericaSpace: In addition to astronauts from the Apollo era attending, as stated previously the flight controllers will also be at the event. Why is it vital to honor their perspective as well as those of the astronauts, as time advances and Apollo becomes more of a distant memory to the public?

Gordon Permann: The controllers represent 90% of the corporate memory of the Apollo flights, and each have a unique perspective of their particular roles and interactions with both the flight crews and the other ground stations – the individual desks provide answers to questions that even the flight crews could not possibly answer. Events in the past have glossed over nearly all of these people (with the exception of Kranz, of course) so while we have access to them, events such as ours open that window a bit, and expose these guys to historians and enthusiasts alike with opportunities for additional morsels to be revealed. Sometimes, a simple question gets multiple reactions that chain together in such an environment.

As an aside, we inducted the NASA Ground Control team into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame two years ago.

John L. "Jack" Swigert, pictured in a 1971 NASA photo. Photo Credit: NASA
John L. “Jack” Swigert, pictured in a 1971 NASA photo. Photo Credit: NASA

AmericaSpace: Jack Swigert, the backup who took Ken Mattingly’s spot at the last minute, unfortunately passed away in 1982. How will his contributions be honored during the event?

French: It’s not the first time we’ve honored a crew where people have been missing, sadly; we’ve had inductions into our Hall of Fame where sometimes one, or perhaps even two of the crew have gone. It’s a sad thing, but it’s an opportunity to honor someone and their work. We are definitely making sure [Swigert] is included… I thought it was important to have his biography in there, as well as the other honorees from that night.

There will be discussions of him and his contributions. One thing that I don’t know if the astronauts will address, but they certainly have addressed in previous Apollo 13 events… [In the movie] they made him look as if he was kind of coming up to speed with the rest of the crew. In fact, his contributions were vital from the beginning. He was far more accomplished than the movie lets on.

Here is something Al Worden [astronaut and Apollo 15 command module pilot] talks about a lot – he and Jack, in cooperation with the men at Downey and mission control, worked on the emergency procedures manual for the Apollo command module. He spearheaded that. When it came to having an emergency in space, having the guy who essentially wrote the procedures manual right there was very important to the mission. Al is one of those guys who underscores how little Jack gets in terms of credit for that.

AmericaSpace: While anniversary events are fun for attendees, please underscore from a historical perspective why it is important to keep the memory of the stories of Apollo through these kinds of events (especially this troubled mission) alive.

Permann: Apollo 13, the ‘successful failure,’ is unique in our history as a space mission that suffered a catastrophe away from our home planet, yet the crew returned safely. The loss of two STS orbiters after seemingly small events show that innocuous circumstances and ‘unimportant’ bits can and will result in tragedy. Apollo 13 was, in my mind, the ‘tragedy that wasn’t.’ We continue, as a nation, to have a fascination with the Apollo program and aside from the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Apollo 13 gets almost as much attention for the quiet heroism of the ground crew and the imperiled flight crew – the whole world held its breath for days to see if those two teams could accomplish the impossible.

I think their triumph with be the stuff of legends hundreds of years from now, an epic rivaling Gilgamesh, the Charge of the Light Brigade, etc. Plus, when this generation passes away, there will be no direct living connection to the lunar landings… [There is a] possibility that the ‘signal to noise’ ratio will begin to drown out the actual events with mountains of conspiracy theories. For as long as we have access to these historic figures, we owe it to them and to ourselves to honor them, and revel in their victory.


Some tickets are still available for this event, which will kick off at 5:30 p.m. with a reception. Please visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum website for more information. Many thanks to Francis French and Gordon Permann for their participation.

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