Astronaut touches down at IUP

Capt. James A. Lovell Jr. signs autographs following Monday’s speech at Fisher Auditorium. Photo by Dustin Mendus

By Dustin Mendus

Retired Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., the former U.S. astronaut depicted by actor Tom Hanks in the Oscar-winning 1995 film “Apollo 13,” recounted his historic space exploits to a well-attended town-and-gown audience in Fisher Auditorium on Monday night.

Lovell, 82, was the protagonist in the film and the commander of the ill-fated 1970 NASA mission on which it was based. He and two crew members were on their way to the moon when an explosion aboard their capsule crippled the controls and changed their mission from expansive scientific exploration to basic human survival. Lovell guided the crew safely back to Earth.

He retold the story of what NASA called a “successful failure” to his audience at Monday’s First Commonwealth Bank-sponsored event. Teamwork, leadership and perseverance were the keys that kept him and his crew alive, he said.

Lovell noted that the space agency’s 40-year-old shuttle program is scheduled to end next year. In an interview following his speech, he said American astronauts will have to hitchhike to the orbiting International Space Station aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket.

Lovell said the U.S. space shuttle was supposed to be replaced with the Constellation program, which was intended to “provide infrastructure to Mars.” Funding for the Constellation program was cut from the Obama administration’s 2011 budget. But Lovell said he hoped manned exploration of space would continue.

Lovell said the loss of funding meant that U.S. astronauts will have to pay $60 million apiece for flights to the International Space Station aboard foreign space vehicles. However, he said Russian space equipment was more reliable.

“The booster that Soyuz went up on is probably more reliable than anything we have put up,” Lovell said in the interview. “It put Gagarin into space, and it is still putting men up. It has been upgraded, but it is still the same basic vehicle.”

Lovell said U.S. space goals should include a return to the moon.

“Apollo was merely about getting people to and from,” Lovell said. “It was a prestige thing. It wasn’t until Apollo 13 that we began thinking about science.”

Audience members agreed that the nation should return to space.

“We should move on with it,” said Ron Callovini, 51 now and age 10 at the time of Apollo 13. “There were cries of poverty and people saying that it was pointless then. Meanwhile, technology exponentially moved because of the space program. Nothing but good can come from the program.”

Indiana resident Jack Frank agreed.

“If we want to be a world leader and compete, we have to do it,” Frank said.

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