He was one of the first men around the moon– one of the first to see the far side, one of the first to see the Earth rise over the stark lunar landscape, one of the first to see our home planet so small he could cover it with his thumb. He was the first to go twice and the only to make that journey and never land.
His name is Captain Jim Lovell.
And I got to meet him.
A little background– as a student ambassador for Back to Space, one of my roles is generating content for our YouTube channel. We’re trying to promote STEM in pop culture and make sure that people remember the Apollo program, and this experience definitely showed me why. When I told my friends at school that I’d be flying to Chicago to meet Jim Lovell, some of them got excited, while some nodded with a fake smile and a vacant stare, and some just blinked and said, “who’s that?”
And it’s not my generation’s fault that the Apollo program has largely been forgotten, but the fact is that this entire part of history that excited the world to explore like never before and to reach new heights– no one knows about it.
So Back to Space is trying to change that, and one way we’re doing that is through 50th anniversary “Apollo Series” videos celebrating the missions. Apollo 8 had its 50th anniversary in December (we weren’t able to meet with Capt. Lovell until now due to scheduling) and I’m in charge of that video.
That’s how I found myself on a plane on Saturday morning to Chicago– a city I’d never been to in a state I’d never visited– with a list of interview questions and a map of the moon in my bag and Lovell’s book Apollo 13 in my hand. We were originally supposed to fly out a few days earlier, but due to bad weather our flight got cancelled and rescheduled for Saturday. Now, the plane was taking off, and the foggy Dallas skies turned blue as we climbed over the clouds, and a few hours later, we touched down over snow-covered Chicago.
The interview was at this picturesque little library, the benches and courtyard areas all covered in a foot of ice and snow. Inside, the librarians directed us to the room where we’d conduct the interview. We had a camera crew in there taking video. It was my first time on a set for anything, and when the crew gave me a mic cord to drop down my shirt and held up the film slate, I realized what a crazy world I’d stepped into.
“He’s here,” someone said, and I turned to see Captain Lovell walking through the small doorway, wearing corduroy pants, a green sweater, and a navy blue baseball hat. He said hello to everyone and we shook hands; I couldn’t help but feel in awe, even though I was trying so hard to act like this was all business, like I met astronauts on a daily basis. But this man is one of my heroes. I’d looked forward to this for weeks. And there he was!
We sat down for the interview, our chairs positioned so we were next to each other, facing somewhat towards the camera. The first question I asked was what about the Apollo program he wanted to share with people my age, most of whom know next to nothing about it. He responded with an overview of the program, how the Soviet Union had been ahead for so long and how the US had rushed to catch up, finally making it to the moon on Apollo 8 just before the Soviet Union launched its own circumlunar flight.
That is, in fact, why Apollo 8 went around the moon at all– it was actually supposed to stay in Earth orbit, but the CIA learned that the Soviet Union had launched animals around the moon and was planning to send people soon, so NASA changed the mission plans.
Lovell told me that in astronaut training for his Gemini mission, he and his crewmates would go parasailing off the backs of pickup trucks to practice controlling their parachutes. The Gemini capsules were equipped with ejection seats that would allow the crew to escape if anything went wrong during launch (this was not a feature on the Apollo capsule).
I also learned that his favorite song is the Star Spangled Banner, that he enjoyed eating peanut butter crackers in space but that when they rehydrated dried green beans they didn’t exactly taste like green beans anymore. He wanted to go to space because it seemed “like a Lewis and Clark expedition,” and it lived up to his expectations.
But one of my favorite moments was with the moon map. My mom bought it for me a few years ago, and sometimes I’ll just lay on my bed with it stretched out before me, looking at the names of the craters and the patterns of dark and light and the little x’s where spacecraft landed. I had a question about it, so I’d grabbed it while the camera crew took a moment to adjust the lighting. At that same moment, Lovell told us that Mount Marilyn was now officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union. It’s this big triangular feature that all lunar-bound astronauts see when they go into orbit, and Lovell named it after his wife during his Apollo 8 flight.
“Here, let me see that,” he said, pointing to my map. I gave it to him and watched as he turned it over in his hands, until he finally pointed at a tiny mark I’d never noticed before labelled Mons Marilyn. “See, there it is.”
Lovell went on to point out various craters named after different notable people. He explained that most of the craters on the far side have Russian names because they had the first probe to see the dark side of the moon. It’s been around 50 years since he’s been there, but he found his way around that map with the ease of knowing the streets of your hometown.
I originally brought the map with me to Chicago because I’d noticed three craters named Borman, Lovell, and Anders– the three men on the Apollo 8 flight. I tapped on them. “How did you choose how those were named?” I asked.
Lovell laughed. “We didn’t. I got the smallest one, see– I bet Anders had something to do with it.”
But I kept looking back at that tiny Mt. Marilyn, a little piece of history hidden in that name. A landmark easily visible to astronauts around the moon, but one that hasn’t been seen in around 50 years.
And talking to Lovell just reinforced my thought– I want to see it someday. I want to be an astronaut, and I want to see it.
I really do think that’s the power of the space program. It inspires us to reach higher, dream bigger, and go farther. The Apollo program was around 50 years ago, but it still drives me to pursue my goals. And I hope some of the people watching our live video or even reading this post feel the same way!
It was incredible to meet Captain Jim Lovell. I learned a lot, and I’m so excited to share all of that with everyone. We’ll definitely have some videos from the interview coming soon, so check out our YouTube channel! And if you have any questions about the interview or Back to Space, leave us a comment!