Walnut Creek had no problem turning out in large numbers for the Lesher Speaker Series Newsmakers’ first guests, Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell and retired NASA Flight Control Director Gene Kranz.
Lovell's phrase, "Houston, we have a problem," became a symbol of understatement and bravery. He turned it into a joke by pointing out that the usual Newsmakers host, Steve Lesher, was absent because, ironically, of a summons to business in ... Houston.
Scott MacCormac, Diablo Regional Arts Association Board chairman, stepped on the Lesher Center for the Arts stage as substitute. He introduced KTVU’s John Fowler, the moderator for the evening.
“We have an opportunity to hear what really happened,” Fowler announced, referring to the Apollo 13 mission that electrified the world in 1970.
For many in the audience, old enough to have sat, spellbound, as NASA fought to bring the astronauts back to Earth, it was review. For the handful of children sprinkled amidst the sold-out Lesher crowd, it was an opportunity to see, in the flesh, two men they knew only through books or television.
Kranz entered, solo, to set the stage for Lovell’s entrance and provide historical context.
During the 1960s, Kranz said, the United States was a nation “torn by the start of Vietnam and three political assassinations,” yet determined to win supremacy in space.
Mission Control didn’t even have computers — "They were located miles away, at IBM, because they didn’t trust us with them,” he laughed — and global communications were tied to a 60-word-per-minute teletype machine.
Project Mercury, his initial assignment, had close calls, including what he described as “vile, brutal, visible explosions,” on all of the first missions. Gemini Projects were the follow-up, designed to test and prove the technology created by NASA to improve crew safety and resulted in success.
The Apollo program was developed to put man on the Moon. By the time Mission 13 was sent into space, America had become so blasé about space exploration that television networks chose to run “I Love Lucy” reruns and a baseball game instead of covering Lovell’s flight.
But when Apollo 13 was 200,000 miles from earth on April 14, 1970, Kranz said an explosion “like a blowtorch tearing through the capsule” changed everything.
Lovell, the most visible hero then, and still the calm, happy character America learned to adore, joined Kranz as a recording of his famous five-word phrase played.
He said there were two groups involved on that fateful day: “One, in a comfortable control room; the other, in a cold, damp, crippled spacecraft 200,000 miles from home.”
The damage to a heater tank that caused the explosion had happened two weeks before the mission, he explained. Told by Mission Control that they were on “free return,” a natural course through space that relies on the Moon’s gravitational pull to redirect the capsule toward Earth, Lovell knew how to react to the mishap.
“I didn’t worry about it,” he shrugged, demonstrating his tendency for understatement and a cool temperament under fire.
Asked by an audience member later in the evening if he was scared, Lovell answered, “We didn’t have time to get scared. We had to figure out how to get home!”
Teamwork was the key, a point both men emphasized throughout the lecture.
Finding the solution was a matter of learning and improvisation. Lovell had to maneuver a spacecraft with a 60,000-pound dead mass attached to it. The crew had to use duct tape, a piece of plastic, cardboard and an old sock to avoid being suffocated by carbon monoxide.
Kranz’s team had to come up with a formula for re-entry: Failure would mean Lovell and his crew would either burn to a crisp, or bounce off Earth’s atmosphere into an endless outer space trajectory.
Lovell said there are three types of people in the world; those who make things happen, those who see things happen and those who wonder what happened. If he and Kranz had not been in the first category, he joked, Kranz would be giving this speech alone.
A final question, about where space missions should go next and whether NASA remains viable, drew an energetic reply from Kranz: “We have lost our sense of direction in space. It is necessary to inspire young people to get into science, but they must have a way to use the science. It’s important for the American psyche,” he insisted.
The event’s non-profit partner, Chabot Space & Science Center, championed the same message, with a brief video showcasing Bay Area kids handling flight simulators, learning about the universe, and perhaps — one day — becoming the next, cool-under-fire American hero.