Mississippi’s Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise talks 50th anniversary, regrets

Published 7:43 am Saturday, April 18, 2020

50 years after Apollo 13, Fred Haise talks virus, regrets

Fifty years after Apollo 13 blasted into space, carrying Biloxi, Mississippi native Fred Haise Jr., Commander James Lovell Jr. and John Swigert Jr. to the moon, the “unlucky 13” seems to be at work again.

The 50th anniversary of the April 11, 1970 launch was to be marked with nine ceremonies across the country.

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Events were planned at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers and Marshall Flight Center and a big weekend was to be under way in Biloxi complete with a banquet, a public unveiling of the launch pad, a statue of Haise at the Biloxi Lighthouse, and a bobble head Fred to be given away at a Biloxi Shuckers’ game.

But the new coronavirus pandemic ended the Apollo 13 commemoration before it began.

Haise says he’s not superstitious about the number 13 — which has popped up several times during the mission and in life.

On April 13, 1970, two days after launch, an oxygen tank exploded on board Apollo 13 at 13:13 military time, 1:13 p.m. Biloxi time. Haise said he knew right then they would abort the moon landing.

“It had been a very unique opportunity,” he said, and not being able to walk on the moon is what Haise said he considers the biggest regret in his life.

“I missed my chance and was disappointed the second time when they canceled (Apollo missions) 18 and 19,” he said.

He grew up in Biloxi and is one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon. Haise said the Apollo 13 astronauts could see their intended landing site as they passed within 137 nautical miles of the the moon to slingshot back toward Earth.

Last year Haise, now 86, traveled and spoke at many events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11. He trained with Neil Armstrong and the crew as a backup on that mission.

Not to let the coronavirus cancel all 50th anniversary salutes to Apollo 13, NASA has created a website complete with photos and video to mark the occasion. A podcast features Lovell and Haise remembering the fateful mission.

The mission is termed both “a successful failure” and “NASA’s finest hour.” The “Apollo 13” movie, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, showed some of the drama of the flight.

Lovell’s radio call-out, “Houston we have a problem,” become one of the most famous quotes in NASA history. The photograph taken at Mission Control Center when Apollo 13 finally reestablished radio contact after safely splashing down in the Pacific is iconic.

“Our goal 50 years ago was to save our valiant crew after sending them around the moon and return them safely to Earth,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our goal now is to return to the moon to stay, in a sustainable way,” he said. “We are working hard to ensure that we don’t need to respond to this kind of emergency in Artemis, but to be ready to respond to any problems we don’t anticipate.”

The lunar module that was to have taken Haise and Lovell to land on the moon instead became a “lifeboat” to bring the crew back home. Many of the systems aboard the damaged spacecraft had to be powered down.

As the temperature dropped, frost formed on the instruments and Haise, who had became ill with a urinary tract infection, said he’s never felt so cold.

When divers opened the hatch after splashdown, “A big cloud of frosty air poured out of that spacecraft,” he said.

Haise was 36 when he flew on Apollo 13, and he, Lovell and Swigert were awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom.

Haise was still ill and missed the ticker tape parade in Chicago, but he and his family were honored at a parade through downtown Biloxi. Haise was soon back and testified before Congress with the other Apollo 13 astronauts and Dee O’Hara, nurse to the astronauts, along to give him daily shots.

Haise said he is writing a book about his life and career. While he’s most known as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 13, that’s not what he considers his greatest accomplishment.

“Probably the biggest one was the first flight of Enterprise Space Shuttle,” he said. He and Gordon Fullerton were the first to fly a space shuttle off the back of a 747 plane and glide it to a landing.

His many accomplishments as a test pilot and astronaut came when Haise, who was working as a cub reporter for the Daily Herald, now the Sun Herald, decided to serve his country.

“The Korean War’s what made the change,” he said.

His father encouraged him to become a commissioned officer. At age 18, with two years of college at Perkinston and having never flown in an airplane, Haise became a Naval Aviation Cadet and then a Marine Corps fighter pilot.

“I was really lucky because everything sort of fell into place for me career path-wise,” he said.
He doesn’t necessarily see 13 as a bad number, although in 1973, he crashed while flying a Convair BT-13 and was burned over 50% of his body.

Before he flew on Apollo 13, Haise said he got some letters from people who were concerned about a mission with that name. He also got a letter saying in Italy, where he said, “They claimed 13 was a lucky number.”

Now as Italy struggles with the coronavirus, he said people there feel a connection with Apollo 13, which overcame adversity and persevered.