I was born in 1960 at the beginnings of the space race. I became interested in science, in general, and space, in particular, when I was about 6 … during Apollo 13, I would go out at night, look at the moon, and pray for your safe return. I thought that I could find your spacecraft in my telescope and will you back to earth. I don’t know how many people you inspired, but I’ve always kept studying astronomy and science. I would like to think that everyone was inspired by your bravery.
That “thank you” note excerpt to Captain James A. Lovell of Lake Forest was penned by Greg Schmierer, one of many fans and admirers who are participating in The Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium’s “Letters to Lovell” project.
Initiated in honor of Lovell’s 90th birthday and the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, the public is invited to write missives directly to Lovell to say thank you and express how his story has encouraged them to pursue their dreams. To celebrate Apollo 8 and Lovell’s other pivotal achievements in space exploration, The Women’s Board will honor the captain at its Celestial Ball black tie fundraiser on September 8.
Lovell’s history as an astronaut is known far and wide. He was selected by NASA in 1962, took to the skies on the Gemini and Apollo missions, and became an unforgettable part of American history in 1970 when his words came over the airwaves: “Houston, we have a problem.”
“Like most people, I remember the daring of the whole space program, that we took the chances that we did,” says Lovell in a recent interview. “I remember the leadership who took the chances, and I wanted to follow that.”
The Apollo 13 mission could have cost him his life had it not been for the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the team at Mission Control working with the three astronauts—James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise—aboard. At the time leading up to the Apollo launch, though, Lovell says that Americans had gotten complacent about the space program
“This was an accident that happened at the right time at the right place,” he explains. “We were becoming very confident with the Apollo program, so much so that the launch of Apollo 13 was buried on page 78 of The New York Times. We launched with little fanfare. But it was a flight that was plagued by bad omens and bad luck.”
By now we know that Apollo 13 returned to earth safely, shifting the mindset about the program. “It brought the space program back to a new level. It demonstrated what people could do with good leadership, initiative and problem solving skills,” says Lovell.
He took his self-imposed mission seriously, carrying it with him beyond his days as an astronaut (he retired from the Navy and the space program in 1973) all the way through present day. After his retirement from NASA, Lovell went into the business world. He would go on to hold positions as President and CEO of Bay-Houston Towing Company; President of Fisk Telephone Systems, Inc.; and ultimately as Executive Vice President of Centel Corporation (the position that brought him to Lake Forest) before retiring a second time in 1991.
Life in Lake Forest included seeing his youngest son Jeff graduate from Lake Forest High School and his other children begin their careers, marry and start their own families. In 1997, his family built and opened Lovell’s of Lake Forest, a family owned and operated fine dining destination that endured through 2015. In the downstairs Captain’s Quarters, many a guest marveled over the floor-to-ceiling glass enclosed display case that occupied one full wall of the cozy pub area and housed some of Lovell’s iconic NASA memorabilia—part of the heat shield from a spacecraft, manuals used by astronauts aboard the flights, and letters he received from friends and luminaries after Apollo 13’s safe return.
The huge astronaut mural that greeted guests as they entered the restaurant was a personal gift to Lovell from friends Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson; it now hangs in the Captain James A. Lovell Health Care Center, which opened in 2010 and is named in honor the former astronaut.
It seems that his indelible persona as Captain James A. Lovell remained the common thread on his journey through life. When he retired from business, Lovell reinvented himself yet again. He co-authored (with journalist Jeffrey Kluger) the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Journey of Apollo 13, released in 1994. The film, Apollo 13, was based on the book and released in 1995. Lovell also went on the speaker circuit to talk to audiences about Apollo 13. It seemed people couldn’t get enough of hearing from Captain Lovell about that fateful journey in 1970 to the moon and back.
“I sent my grandchildren through college on those speaking gigs,” Lovell adds. He and Marilyn, wife of 66 years, currently count 11 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren among their brood. After 18 years in their first Lake Forest home, they eventually moved to a house closer to town and the lakefront, where they still reside today.
Even after all this time, people young and old remain fascinated about America’s early and ongoing space odyssey, and the lasting impression Captain Lovell has made on their lives. Adler’s “Letter to Lovell” campaign will serve as a lasting testament to Captain Lovell’s legacy and timelessness as a true American hero.
Here are a few more excerpts from the Adler Planetarium’s “Letters to Lovell” campaign. To participate, send an email to [email protected].
I love the Apollo 13 book. At my school, I read the book two times. When I saw it at the school book fair, I bought it. I am only 8 years old and still may be your biggest fan. I was even “you” for a school project. Your biggest fan,
You have been a beacon of courage, resilience, leadership and inspiration, a role model of pushing beyond the boundaries when the odds are against you. You are a true American (actually, global) hero. Thank you for your service to exploration, and for sparking my generation’s curiosity for what lies beyond what we can see with our naked eyes. For often, as we all know in life, that’s where truth and mystery lie.
–Pradip, Shalini, and Meghna Patiath
In reading Lost Moon, and Moon Shot, you and Frank give an account of two weeks in a Gemini capsule. In all these missions (including Gemini XII), you proved yourself a man of character, integrity and courage. Your story is one I tell the children in the school library where I work. Happiest of birthdays to you, Mr. Lovell. I’m so glad you are still with us and still sharing your story. It’s not all what you did, it’s who you are that I admire. Thank you!
I was a kid when you were at both Apollo 8 and at Apollo 13. You became part of my childhood “teachers of life.” With the TV, live transmission from Apollo 8 to all the people on the good Earth, you showed to us the human dimension in that epic journey. You showed to us the beauty of our living planet. With your courage, bravery and confidence in the teamwork at Apollo 13, you showed to us another perspective of the human dimension in that epic journey. You showed to us the beauty of returning to our living planet.
–Antonio Salceda De Alba