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Houston, We Have a Graduation Speaker

Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell x’50 will address December grads.

John Allen
December 09, 2016

Photo courtesy of UW–Madison Archives, S12817

The first thing to know is that Ron Howard got it wrong.

In the film Apollo 13, when an explosion cripples a lunar mission, Howard has astronaut Jim Lovell x’50 (as played by Tom Hanks) report, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The quotation is close, but not quite right. In reality, Lovell’s tense wasn’t present, but past perfect: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

It’s a small error, but at UW–Madison, we take our details seriously. Lovell is a detail-oriented guy, which proved to be a good thing — a life-or-death thing — in 1970 when he helped to guide his damaged spaceship around the moon and back to Earth.

Lovell will share insights from his career (which included 715 hours in space) with UW–Madison’s winter Class of 2016 as the graduation speaker this month.

Lovell, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, graduated from high school in Milwaukee in 1946 before enrolling at the UW, where he began training as a naval aviator. After two years in Madison, he transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Though passed over for the initial class of astronauts in 1958, NASA accepted him in 1962. He was the command-module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission, which was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, and then the commander for Apollo 13, which was intended to be the third spacecraft to land on the moon. But an explosion caused much of the ship’s oxygen to vent into space.

That mission ended up being Lovell’s last trip into space. He retired from NASA and the navy in 1973. Traveling in space, he says, gives a person perspective on life’s problems. “It shows you how insignificant we really all are,” he says of looking out the Apollo craft’s window at the planet Earth. “Everything I ever knew, the very existence of people, all of the problems we have on Earth, was behind my thumb.”

UW–Madison’s winter commencement ceremony will take place at the Kohl Center on Sunday, Dec. 18.

[PHOTO: Jim Lovell, center, speaks at Madison’s Truax Field in 1966, shortly before his first spaceflight as mission commander, Gemini XII. Photo courtesy of UW–Madison Archives, S12817.]

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