Astronaut, aviator, mechanical engineer Jim Lovell receives honorary PhD from UW-Madison

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He is a cool, competent leader—a quiet hero—who played a role in turning an almost-certain tragedy into one of the greatest success stories our country has known. Marking its 45th anniversary in 2015, the Apollo 13 mission to the moon was a failure—yet, said Captain James A. Lovell Jr. in a September 2010 interview: “I realized it really was a triumph in the way people handled a crisis: Good leadership at all levels at NASA, the use of imagination and initiative to figure out how to get us home by using just what we had on board, the perseverance of people who kept on going when it looked like initially that we didn’t have a chance. … This is why Apollo 13 went from being a failure to a triumph.”

Lovell certainly is an astronaut-hero, a pioneer in efforts to explore beyond the everyday world, and to generate new knowledge in an era when the average person gazed up at the sky and saw mystery in the sun, moon and stars. Lovell also was a pilot in the U.S. Navy and a successful businessman. But even greater than those, he continues to be an inspiration to many generations of people young and old, piquing their interest in science and technology, encouraging them to be bold in their aspirations and to turn the impossible into reality.

And at the winter 2016 commencement ceremony, retired Captain James A. Lovell will receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lovell also was the commencement speaker. View the ceremony here. Read a story about his remarks here.

Lovell was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1928 and subsequently moved to Milwaukee, where he graduated from Juneau High School. He also was an Eagle Scout. He attended UW-Madison for mechanical engineering and naval sciences for two years before moving on to the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1952. He then was commissioned an ensign in the Navy. He served many flight assignments, attended pilot training, served at sea flying F2H Banshee night fighters, and was a flight instructor and safety engineer. In January 1958, he entered a six-month test pilot training course at the Naval Air Test Center and subsequently was selected as an astronaut candidate. (Lovell ultimately retired from the Navy in 1973 as a captain.) He was the pilot of Gemini 7 in 1965 and the commander of Gemini 12 in 1966. Gemini 7 was the 12th American manned spaceflight, orbiting Earth 206 times, while Gemini 12 was the final manned Gemini flight.

Lovell served as the navigator on Apollo 8, using the spacecraft’s built-in sextant to determine its position by measuring star positions. This information was then used to calculate required mid-course corrections. The craft entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve and made a total of 10 orbits, most of them circular at an altitude of approximately 70 miles, for a total of 20 hours. The crew broadcast black-and-white television pictures of the lunar surface back to Earth and the craft began its return to Earth on Christmas Day with a rocket burn made on the moon’s far side, out of radio contact with Earth. The lunar orbit REPLACEion and trans-Earth injection burns were the two most tense moments of this first lunar mission. When contact was re-established, Lovell was the first to announce the good news: “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.” The crew splashed down safely on Earth Dec. 27, 1968.

Lovell lifted off as commander of Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970, with Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. He and Haise were to land on the moon. But on April 13, while in transit to the moon, a routine cryogenic oxygen tank stir damaged wire insulation, creating a short and explosion inside the tank. The explosion damaged the second oxygen tank, and in just over two hours, all on-board oxygen was lost, disabling the hydrogen fuel cells that provided electrical power to the command/service module Odyssey. The moon landing mission was aborted, and the sole objective was to safely return the crew to Earth. Using the lunar module as a “lifeboat” providing battery power, oxygen and propulsion, Lovell and his crew re-established the free return trajectory that they had left, and swung around the moon to return home. Based on the flight controllers’ calculations made on Earth, Lovell had to adjust the course two times by manually controlling the lunar module’s thrusters and engine, using his watch for timing. Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth on April 17. “To be sure, his legendary position as a trail-blazing astronaut has been etched in history through his command of the dramatic and fateful Apollo 13 mission,” says Elliot Holokauahi Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation. “Jim’s command of Apollo 13 is often regarded as the single-most important human space exploration of all time—not because everything went perfectly, but because it did not, and in the challenges of bringing home a crew of three using the functional remains of a seriously damaged spacecraft, Jim Lovell and the NASA team demonstrated to the world the indomitability of the human spirit, and the limitlessness of human ingenuity and the ability to triumph over all odds.”

This mission ultimately led to an Academy Award-winning movie, based on Lovell’s book of the same name, in which Tom Hanks played the role of Lovell. The beauty of the film was its portrayal of the ingenuity required of those aboard Apollo 13 and in the control center, as they worked together to find a way to get the astronauts back to Earth. This is the essence of modern engineering, in which large, interdisciplinary teams work together to solve the critical problems we all face, including energy, water, health and many other critical aspects of our lives. This has inspired many students to pursue engineering as a career and it is a great benefit to us all.

Many are aware of Lovell’s accomplishments as an astronaut; however, he also has devoted countless hours to his country and the state of Wisconsin. Lovell has been chairman of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, served on numerous boards for corporations, universities, and nonprofits, and given inspirational speeches nationwide. “He is a man of infinite commitment to the improvement of humankind, who has given countless hours of his time sharing the lessons of life—inspiring tens of thousands of young people in the process,” says Pulham. “Whether lecturing at a university, throwing out the first pitch at a ball game, testifying before Congress, or giving career advice at space industry gatherings, Jim has been a master at the art of ‘giving back.’ He has never been one to rest on his laurels or bask in his fame. Rather, Jim Lovell has always stepped forward, encouraging others to reach for their dreams, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Lovell has channeled that ‘fame’ in his efforts to be an inspiration and a role model to many. In March of 2010, he and retired Apollo astronauts Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong visited members of the U.S. Air Force in Southwest Asia, while on a USO tour. Concerned with healthy aging, he appeared in a promotional video in 2014 for NorthShore University Health System. In the video, “Captain Jim Lovell’s Story: Healthy Aging,” he spoke of health challenges he has faced, and he talked about the challenges of aging and ways to stay active.

In fact, at age 87, Lovell still continues to speak and inspire. In summer 2015, for example, Lovell appeared in the public service announcement, “Explore and Soar,” for the Chicago Public Library System. The PSA was narrated by Bill Kurtis and appears on all Chicago television stations through Sept. 1, 2015.

He has always strongly urged students to pursue interests in science and mathematics, and to get involved in the country’s space program. Lovell regularly visits colleges, universities and businesses where he gives talks about leadership and his experiences as a test pilot, astronaut and businessman. “From humble roots, Jim worked hard for his many accomplishments and truly believes anything is possible if you set your mind to it,” says Michelle Larson, president and CEO of the Adler Planetarium. “His infectious laughter is second only to his optimism, which shines through as he relates the challenges he has encountered and overcome throughout his career. When speaking to young people, Jim highlights the opportunities that didn’t work out the first time for him, like not making the final selection to the Mercury Seven astronaut crew. Jim is fond of saying, ‘If you want to be successful as an astronaut or anything else, you have to keep trying.'”

Lovell has also retained strong ties to the states of Wisconsin and Illinois and has devoted a great deal of time to improving the lives of their residents, particularly in the Milwaukee area. He is a regent emeritus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, a member of the Board of Trustees of Lake Forest College, a trustee of the Adler Planetarium and the National Space Institute, a fellow of the American Astronautical Society and of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and is a member of the Sports Medicine Advisory Board, Rush Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center.

He has been honored for his service with prestigious awards that include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, two Navy Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Laureate of the Order of Lincoln (Illinois’ highest honor), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Distinguished Alumni Award in 1970. Some of the more notable and unique recognitions Lovell has received for his lifelong contributions to science, technology, health, fitness and our knowledge of space include:

• A small moon crater named Lovell,
• A street in downtown Milwaukee named North James Lovell Street,
• The James Lovell Museum of Science, Economics and Technology in Milwaukee,
• The Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago, and
• Lovell Place, a street in the North Harbour Industrial estate on the North Shore of Auckland, New Zealand.

For his pioneering work as an astronaut, engineer and test pilot; for his many years of public service; in recognition of his years as a citizen of the great state of Wisconsin; for his time as a student at UW-Madison; and for his role in inspiring millions pursue interests in math, science, engineering, aerospace and technology, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to honor James A. Lovell with an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

Author: Engineering External Relations