The Week (US)
The NASA flight director who helped save Apollo 13
Just after 9 p.m. on April 13, 1970, NASA’s Mission Control in Houston received a message from the three-man crew of Apollo 13. “Houston,” astronaut Jack Swigert said, “we’ve had a problem here.” An explosion in an oxygen tank had crippled life support and primary-electrical power in the moonbound spacecraft’s command module. At 10 p.m., flight director Glynn Lunney began his regular shift at Mission Control and felt a momentary panic as he realized the scale of the crisis unfolding 205,000 miles from Earth. “I had the sense of the bottom falling out from under me,” he said. “It took about 10 to 20 seconds for me to return from that place. Nobody else even seemed to notice.” Together with his team and three fellow flight directors, the then-33-year-old helped mastermind a plan to get the crew safely home, using Apollo 13’s battery-powered lunar module as a temporary lifeboat and changing its course to slingshot around the moon and back to Earth. Lunney “brought calm to the situation,” said Ken Mattingly, an original Apollo 13 astronaut who was replaced before launch because of possible exposure to rubella. “He and he alone brought all of the scared people together.”
Lunney was born in Old Forge, Pa., to a coal miner father and a homemaker mother, said The New York Times. As a boy, he was “intrigued by flight and filled his room with model air
planes.” Lunney studied aerospace engineering at the University of Detroit while also working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s forerunner. He joined the space agency full-time following his 1958 graduation, said The Washington Post, and helped “develop the Mercury spacecraft used in the first U.S. crewed flights in the early 1960s.” Lunney became NASA’s fourth flight director—a post in which he led a team of flight controllers, engineering experts, and support personnel—and was on duty for the Apollo 11 lunar ascent after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
During the initial hours of the Apollo 13 crisis, Lunney made a decision that is now “widely credited with keeping the crew alive and safe,” said the Houston Chronicle. His flight team shut down power to the command module and moved the astronauts to the much smaller lunar module, conserving the battery power “needed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and deploy parachutes.” After 3½ days, the crew returned to the command module—which had a heat shield to protect it from the scorching temperatures experienced during re-entry—jettisoned the lunar module, and safely splashed down in the Pacific on April 17. Lunney, who with the rest of the Houston team was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, called the remarkable rescue “the best piece of operations work I ever did or could hope to do.”