Space and Spaceflight: Houston Has A Problem

Apollo 13 lifts off on April 11th, 1970.

     April 14th, 1970: The Apollo 13 spacecraft, named the “Odyssey” had run into a catastrophic series of issues. The number two oxygen tank had ruptured, and the spacecraft was venting. The crew, consisting of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Command Module pilot John Swigert made hurried preparations to move into the Lunar Excursion Module, using it as a lifeboat. During this process, Lovell was making the necessary calculations for transfer of computer control from the CM to the LEM. The math was complicated; one small mistake, and the crew would tumble off into the vastness of space. Lovell wrote down the calculations in his mission checklist notebook, and then entered the results into the LEM computer… Three days later, the crew returned safely to earth, having transited the far side of the moon on a free-return trajectory.

     Flash forward, forty years later. Having been allowed by NASA to keep his notebook decades earlier, Jim Lovell recently found it while going through his desk. Realising that it has some historical value, he offered it up for auction. Heritage Auctions, a company that deals in space memorabilia, sold the notebook for a whopping 388,375 dollars. NASA however, is now questioning the sale, asserting that the ring-bound checklist is their property, that Lovell does not have the right to sell it and that only NASA can approve the sale of these types of items. Jim Lovell, accompanied by other Apollo-era astronauts, has held meetings with NASA officials on the matter as a result.(1) (2)

     In the early days of the American space program, it was common for NASA to allow astronauts to keep memorabilia from their missions, such as notebooks. These things were of little value back then, since most, if not all of the flight data was recorded by Houston by means of telemetry during the missions. Also, former director Chris Kraft had previously approved a policy that allowed astronauts to retain personal items, along with anything that would have otherwise been abandoned on the moon during the Apollo missions.

Mission Control celebrates splashdown in the South Pacific, April 17th, 1970.

    I have long been a fan of America’s space program. I remember the last flights of Apollo and the first flight of the Space Shuttle, how we wept in 1986 when we lost Challenger, and again in 2003 when Columbia never made it home. I know the names of almost every Mercury and Apollo program astronaut, and which missions they flew. From Alan “Jose Jimenez” Shepard’s first sub-orbital flight in 1961, to last year’s final shuttle mission…these were the golden years of our space program. Every single one of those brave men and women have done a large part in keeping the dreams and spirit of America very much alive!

     Now, volunteering to get strapped to the top of a rocket and hurled into space by a controlled explosion, is not a very safe thing to do. My guess is that you’d have to be either extremely brave, quite insane or a bit of both to take a job like that. Yet that’s what these people did, mission after mission. Honestly, I can’t believe that NASA is now engaged in something that in my youth, we used to call “Indian-giving,” especially over something as trivial as a notebook! It’s not like we’re talking about selling state secrets, or some multi-thousand-dollar piece of equipment. It’s a seventy page, ring-bound collection of documents, with Jim Lovell’s own handwriting inside. In my opinion, NASA has a very strange idea where ownership is concerned. If something was given to the astronauts, then it should be theirs to do with as they please.

     Jim Lovell, Freddo Haise and John Swigert spent one harrowing week in the emptiness of space, not knowing for sure if they would ever set foot on terra firma again. Yesterday’s NASA gave Lovell the notebook, but today’s NASA is going back on that, and stating that it belongs to the taxpayers. If that is indeed the case, then this taxpayer says let him keep the notebook, sell it, do whatever he wants with it. By God, he earned it four decades ago, right along with the gratitude of this nation for his bravery and grace under immense pressure.

LTC Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom

“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
(Mercury / Gemini / Apollo astronaut Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, 1926 – 1967.)

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