The Real Heroes
Apollo 13 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Johnson Space Center
January of 2010: I checked the new list. I’d moved up to No. 31 among those still at JSC with the longest uninterrupted period of NASA government service. Only 63 people remained present who were here in 1969 when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. So I’m in the twilight (really the midnight) of a fairly undistinguished NASA career, except for a week in April of 1970. Yes, that’s the week of the Apollo 13 rescue.
Being at my station as the Apollo 13 Warning System Engineer, the night of the explosion has served me well for the past 40 years. At 9:08 PM, April 13, 1970, I saw the Master Alarm indication on the console I was monitoring. Seconds later, I heard both Swigert and Lovell call out, “Houston, We’ve Had a Problem.” (Not exactly but close to what Tom Hanks exclaims in Hollywood’s APOLLO 13 saying, “Houston, We Have a Problem.”)
So being among the few still onsite, having worked Apollo 11 as well as Apollo 13, I’ve become the “go-to-guy” for numerous interview requests fielded by the JSC Public Affairs Office. My desk is but a five minute walk to an onsite interview by a history fair student, a distance learning video production with a class in Iceland, a group of touring educators, various performers, or simply a relative of a friend of a friend of a friend who wants someone from Apollo days to talk to them. Mercifully, few can refute my tales of space-yore, but I try to be altogether honest about my modest role.
Nevertheless, having studied space history since Apollo 13 helps me craft the exact setting and background of what it was like then. I share how Eagle nearly crashed into a field of lunar boulders or how nuisance alarms from my warning system nearly made Pete Conrad and Allan Bean the first and second men on the Moon. And the story about how my warning system’s low Descent Engine fuel light terrified everyone in Mission Control is always a favorite.
What’s amazing is, as the years pass, how much more exciting people regard the accounts. (The last mission to the Moon was almost 40 years ago.) I guess its because no later manned lunar voyages compete with those of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Likewise, few remain here to tell these stories. This led to “my finest hour” of Apollo musings. Actually, it was my proverbial finest “fifteen minutes of fame” this past April 6th, 2010. That day, JSC planned a remembrance with Apollo 13’s main players, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Gene Kranz, Glenn Lunney, Gerry Griffin, and John Aaron.
After the morning panel discussion led by Jim Lovell’s co-author of LOST MOON, Jeffrey Kluger, there would be a visitation of the historic Mission Operations Control Room, the MOCR, pronounced “MO-KER”, like the word “broker.” Now, never mind that I never worked in the MOCR. Because I’m still here qualified me to explain its workings to younger employees interested in “touching and viewing” the historic artifact. The VIP panel members had other things planned. In fact, all employees were instructed, “not to request autographs,” due to the limited time the panel would have for such.
Apollo 13 40th Anniversary Panel Discussion at Johnson Space Center, April 6, 2010. From left: Jeffrey Kluger, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Gene Kranz, Gerry Griffin, Glenn Lunney, and John Aaron.
This was a rare opportunity, and I wanted to enjoy it to the fullest. I’d be among the few present to share the Apollo 13 story with visitors, FOR TWO HOURS. Such called for special preparations. I’d always wanted one of those blue-blazers with a NASA patch affixed to the front left pocket.
But my wife wasn’t keen to the idea of defacing the one I wore to Church and other “business-attire” events. So I spent two hours at the Goodwill shop on the Gulf Freeway trying a dozen “navy-blues” ranging in size from 38 short to 44 long. (I’m a 42 long.) My final pick, like all of them, cost a pittance, $15. The chosen garment was a mislabeled 42 regular. It fit me like a 40 short. Never mind that I couldn’t comfortably button it, the coat had two inside pockets and two extra lower outside pockets for pamphlets, flyers, and brochures. In clandestine fashion, I could carry these tri-folds for MOCR visitors. An added advantage of the GOODWILL attire was I could stow my “cigarette pack” sized digital camera along with the paper goods. This event need be recorded for posterity, i.e., my role, of course.
For less than $5, I bought one of those NASA iron-on patches at the Bldg. 30 cafeteria souvenir shop. But, alas, no amount of ironed-on heat seemed adequate to make the thing stick to the blazer. Wrestling with the heat-shield-like-iron device for a quarter hour achieved a degree of “stick-to-ive-ness.” The patch’s red stream-like arrow’s ends curled un-NASA-like outward, but most of the logo stuck. It would be “AOK” for the two hours I’d need it.
A final touch came to mind: my Apollo 13 badge, an artifact from the past. I’d stored it in my closet, wondering if I’d ever need it. For such a time as this, its time, and mine, had come. I hung it lanyard-style under the blazer’s collar and strutted into the MOCR fifteen minutes early. There I stood in archival glory, my official NASA badge and Apollo 13 badge sharing my Goodwill $15 blazer’s façade with the $5.00 iron-on NASA patch. Of course, I had on a tie so that, immediately, visitors assumed I was someone of importance. (I was the only one in the MOCR with a tie.)
At once, I was approached for pictures, even autographs. There were no instructions regarding asking me, the Apollo 13 Warning System Engineer, for such. Quickly, I opened my coat, like a street-corner purveyor of contraband fake Rolexes, might display his wares to potential buyers. My autographed tri-folds would become potential memorabilia stock, perhaps, for later sale on E-bay. At least, that is what my “inflated” thinking deemed them. Visitors asked for pictures with me, wanting to impress relatives and friends afar off, even Massachusetts.
…and then the curtain came down on my act as the side door to the MOCR opened. “Ugh!” I thought. In walked Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Gerry Griffin, Glenn Lunney, and John Aaron. In mid-stroke of autographing a tri-fold, I, suddenly, had no one to give it to. That person had fled to get in-line for a meet-greet-photo with the real stars of Apollo 13. Even my NASA patch seemed to sense the disappointment. Its tail-end seemed to droop, curling an extra quarter centimeter off the blazer toward the likes of Lovell and crew, the heroes of the rescue.
Scene of MOCR Visitors rushing for photo-ops with heroes of Apollo 13
Woodfill not in the photo. He is the one taking the picture.
And my pamphlets? I still had fifty left. But my preparations were not altogether in vain. I fished the camera from my Goodwill coat and handed it to a willing helper. “Take some pictures of me with Fred Haise?” I asked. He had to oblige out of a sense of decency. I’d been photographed with him earlier, even gave him an autographed tri-fold. The picture he took is below. (I had someone take a picture of me with Jim Lovell, but it wasn’t my camera. Unfortunately, I don’t know who it was. If you should be reading this account, I appeal to you…email me the photo. Please!)
Jerry with Fred Haise in historic Apollo 13 MOCR (Note the Apollo 13 lanyard. NASA badge and infamous iron-on patch affixed to Jerry’s GOODWILL blazer hidden by Fred’s right shoulder.)
Apollo 13 Flight Controller John Aaron and Jerry in historic Apollo 13 MOCR. (Note: Goodwill blazer, Apollo 13 lanyard badge, NASA iron-on patch and official NASA badge displayed in full-archival glory.)
All was not lost after all. It only cost me $20, a bit of trouble with that iron-patch and a measure of humiliation. That’s $15 for the Goodwill coat and $5 for the patch. I donated the coat back to Goodwill because the patch fell off, and the coat doesn’t fit me anyway. Maybe, if I stay around until the 50th anniversary, perhaps, I’ll be in the top ten of those still here since Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk. And I’ll get another chance in the MOCR for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 13’s rescue. But, nevertheless, the 40th was thrilling, if only for 15 minutes, to bask in the glory of the real heroes of Apollo 13.