Skip Navigation

Happy Birthday, Jim Lovell

Apollo 13 commander and former UW–Madison student turns 90 on March 25.

March 19, 2018

MADISON, WI (March 19, 2018) — Happy 90th birthday, Jim Lovell! He was born on March 25, 1928, in Cleveland. Lovell and his mother later moved to Milwaukee after his father died in a car accident. Jim attended the University of Wisconsin from 1946 to 1948 under the Flying Midshipman program.

He went on to serve as a navy captain, test pilot, astronaut, and commander of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon.

Though often misquoted, Jim Lovell’s actual words on that mission — “Houston, we’ve had a problem” — have become the quintessential understatement in American lore.

Lovell was being his usual calm self in that moment, but he was alerting ground control that he and his fellow astronauts were in deep trouble: a spark had caused an explosion inside an oxygen tank, and the task at hand suddenly switched from a safe moon landing to surviving a return trip to Earth.

With no heat and limited electricity, the crew made it back home four cramped and cold days later — after Lovell manually corrected the ship’s course — but that terrifying adventure never dampened his love for rockets and space exploration. Lovell’s career has included logging 715 hours in space and reading from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve while orbiting Earth during the Apollo 8 mission. As the spacecraft began its return to Earth on Christmas Day, Lovell announced, “Please be informed: there is a Santa Claus.” He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, graced the covers of Life and TIME magazines, and spoke to enthralled audiences across the country.

After Lovell wrote a book about his Apollo 13 experiences, a 1995 movie with Tom Hanks playing Lovell rekindled the public’s fascination with all that had unfolded during that historic flight. While watching the film with a New York Times reporter, Lovell grinned about the creative liberty taken when a critical procedure is completed — in the movie — in 38 seconds. “Actually,” he said, “we had only 14 seconds to do that maneuver.”

Recalling those tension-filled days, Lovell shrugged off the notion of fear. “We were all test pilots,” he said. “And the only thing we could do was to try to get home. The idea of despair never occurred to us.”

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill that gives Lovell and his fellow former astronauts the ownership rights to any artifacts that they collected during their missions. Although those tangible objects have historical value, what Lovell saw from his vantage point thousands of miles above Earth was priceless. He remembers covering our planet with his thumb when he spotted it outside the spaceship window.

“It shows you how insignificant we really all are,” he said. “Everything I ever knew, the very existence of people, all of the problems we have on Earth, was behind my thumb.”

Lovell is one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon, the first of only three people to fly to the moon twice, and the only one to fly there twice without making a landing. He was also the first person to fly in space four times.

Lovell is featured in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, in its Alumni Way Discovery panel. The park, opened on October 6, 2017, is located between Memorial Union and the Red Gym on the UW–Madison campus. It is open year-round. For more information and a virtual tour of the park, please visit

Media Information

Contact: Tod Pritchard,, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni

Related News and Stories