“People hope they go to heaven when they die… you go to heaven when you are born.”
I’m still coming down to Earth (literally) after an incredible weekend spent in the small West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract. This place has been the unlikely host of numerous Apollo astronauts over the last number of years, thanks to local magistrate Ken Willoughby and his fantastic Space Lectures team.
I may be in my early twenties but I’m certainly no stranger to meeting astronauts. Since my first encounter with Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott at an autograph event in Birmingham in September 2009, I have been lucky enough to shake the hands of many of these men I consider heroes.
Of the 29 American astronauts that flew on Apollos 7 through 17 between October 1968 and December 1972, 20 are still alive today. I consider myself privileged to have met 15 of those men thus far (interviewing seven along the way), but the feeling of awe and excitement when hearing them speak about their experiences never fades.
Meeting Lovell at the weekend means I have now met at least one astronaut from each Apollo mission, something I would have never thought possible just a few short years ago. However, the efforts of people like Ken Willoughby and his team means these opportunities still exist for now.
Many will recognise the name Jim Lovell as the astronaut played on the big screen by Tom Hanks in the hugely popular 1995 movie Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. Lovell himself has acknowledged Howard used some artistic licence in the film, but overall it was impressively true to the tale of the ‘successful failure’ that was the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970.
The 87-year-old Lovell, accompanied on the Transatlantic flight to England by his wife of 63 years Marilyn, was decidedly busy the entire weekend. A formal dinner on the Friday night was followed by a professional photo session, lecture, Q&A and autograph signing on both the Saturday and Sunday, but the organisation ensured all went smoothly.
The Q&A session on both days was conducted by TV physicist and all-round rock star Professor Brian Cox, and his expertise in both his questioning and dealing with the audience added an extra dimension to the event as a whole.
Even as a boy it seemed Jim Lovell was destined to go far. He became an Eagle Scout after high school and was intensely interested in building and flying model rockets. He was aiming for the skies long before his life’s journey took him around the far side of the Moon (twice).
Captain Lovell began his career in the US Navy, before graduating first in his class at Test Pilot School at Pax River, Maryland. One of the first things he discussed in Saturday’s lecture was his just missing out on the selection as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959 due to a temporarily high bilirubin count in his blood. He was however selected three years later in NASA’s second group of astronauts.
This group, the ‘New Nine’ as they were known, are even today considered perhaps the most talented of astronaut selections. Lovell was joined by pilots like Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, John Young and Pete Conrad and this group would provide the core of astronauts for the Gemini program. Gemini was the 2-man precursor to sending men to the Moon and a necessary program in terms of testing the intricacies of not only living in space for extended periods, but spacewalking (EVA), and the rendezvous and docking of vehicles in a vacuum.
The Apollo 13 commander had already been in space three times before both he and crewmate Jack Swigert uttered those famous words ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ after an oxygen tank exploded on the Apollo 13 command module ‘Odyssey’. During the Gemini 7 mission he and Frank Borman spent two weeks in Earth orbit, getting used to each other’s smells and habits in their weightless environment, in a living space no bigger than the inside of a Volkswagen Beetle. He then commanded the final flight of the Gemini program, Gemini 12, in 1966 alongside Buzz Aldrin.
Apollo 8 is for myself and many others the mission that captures the imagination the most – it was the first time man left Earth orbit and ventured out towards the Moon.
The Christmas Eve Genesis reading and beautiful ‘Earthrise’ photo taken on board during one of 10 orbits of the Moon are historic in themselves, and of course I couldn’t meet that mission’s Command Module Pilot without having him sign a beautiful framed presentation commemorating just that.
As the following video shows, the ‘Earthrise’ photo was a team effort. Bill Anders was the crew-member who snapped the iconic image, but both Jim Lovell and Frank Borman played their part in what was a truly spectacular moment in a memorable, and historic, mission. 1968 was a difficult year for America – college riots were everywhere, the Vietnam War was in its full, bloody swing, and renowned figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. In many ways, the flight of Apollo 8 around the Moon around Christmas saved 1968.
For me it is no longer about the autographs or photos – getting the chance to meet these men and hear them talk first-hand about their extraordinary lives is something I refuse to pass up. Many of these men are now in their mid-80s and the chances to meet them are becoming increasingly rare as time goes by.
The next of these events is taking place in April and will see Captain Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the surface of the Moon, visit Pontefract for a similarly inspiring weekend as that just gone by. I had the pleasure of interviewing Captain Cernan a couple of years back, and there is also now a documentary film about his life doing the festival circuit rounds.
I for one am grateful to Ken Willoughby and his entire team of organisers for another fantastic event, and I am looking forward to April already.