'Houston, we have a problem'
- Barbara Sherman
- Regal Courier - Features
Summerfield resident's husband was on Apollo 13 and waited with the rest of the world for the outcome
For three days in April 1970, the world stopped as millions of people followed a real-life "Lost in Space" saga - an onboard explosion on Apollo 13 left its three astronauts - commander James Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise - stranded in space.
But for Mary Haise, who now lives in Summerfield, the ordeal was personal because her husband's life was on the line.
Mary, who had three young children at the time and was pregnant with her fourth, was sheltered from the press along with Marilyn Lovell as much as possible by NASA officials. But the astronauts' wives and children had to wait for the final outcome along with everyone else.
The story, of course, had a happy ending, with the astronauts splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean and their families flying on Air Force One with President and Mrs. Richard Nixon to Hawaii to greet the heroes in person.
Mary, who was later divorced from Fred, remembers every detail of that time as vividly as if it happened yesterday.
Apollo 13 was launched April 11, 1970 - the third manned mission to the moon - but two days into the flight, the electrical system in one of the service module's oxygen tanks caused an explosion that resulted in a loss of electrical power and the two oxygen tanks.
The command module had its own oxygen tank and batteries but was intended to be used only at the end of the flight. The astronauts shut it down and used the lunar module to get back to Earth, enduring limited power, no cabin heat and a shortage of drinking water.
People who don't remember the real-life incident perhaps saw the Academy Award-winning 1995 movie directed by Ron Howard that starred Tom Hanks as Lovell, Bill Paxton as Haise, Kevin Bacon as Swigert, Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell and Tracy Reiner, the daughter of Carl Reiner, as Mary Haise.
But the story actually started a long tine before that when Fred and Mary met in high school in Biloxi, Miss.
After years of pursuing higher education and acquiring advanced degrees, Fred started his NASA career in 1959 as a test pilot, was chosen as an astronaut in 1966 and eventually was selected to fly on Apollo 13.
"We lived in Houston," Mary said. "Many of the wives and children spent the summers at Cape Canaveral because our husbands were there. The fellows were gone a lot for training."
Before the launch of Apollo 13, Mary got to sit in the space capsule atop the Saturn rocket. "Because I was six months pregnant, some thought I shouldn't attempt it, but I said, 'I'm going,'" she said.
The families were in Houston when Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Canaveral so Mary saw it on TV along with the rest of the world.
During the mission, "Marilyn and I had little black boxes on our TVs where we could hear everything going on at Mission Control," Mary said. "A couple of times we could talk to and see our husbands on the big screen at Mission Control.
"When a mission went up, a NASA person stayed with our family all the time - even at night. Reporters were sleeping on our front lawn."
On April 13, Mary had been out and when she got home, she turned on her TV and heard about Apollo 13's explosion.
"We had a pretty tense three days," Mary said. "They didn't know what to do to bring them back - should they come back directly or go around the moon, which they ended up doing. Oxygen was low, fuel was low, and they thought the heat shield might be damaged."
However, in spite of all the stress, Mary said she had wonderful support from her neighbors and the NASA community.
"Neil Armstrong was my neighbor several doors away, and he jumped over the neighbors' fences in between our houses to avoid talking to the press, although his picture was in the paper the next morning," Mary said.
Damage to Apollo 13's service module made landing on the moon impossible, but the moon's gravity was used to return the ship to Earth.
In preparation for the moon landing, Apollo 13 had already left the free-return trajectory that would have automatically sent it back to Earth, so the service module propulsion engine was fired three times to put the spaceship back on the right trajectory toward Earth.
Many people around the world were glued to their television sets as the drama unfolded, but because the astronauts' electrical power was extremely limited, there were no more live television broadcasts after the explosion, and even voice communication was difficult.
As the crew prepared for reentry, they jettisoned the lunar module "Aquarius," and the command module "Odyssey" splashed down safely in the Pacific, where it and the crew were picked up by a Navy ship.
Once the news broke around the world, everyone was anticipating the crew's arrival in Hawaii.
"The Nixons flew to Houston, and President Nixon said, 'Let the children explore Air Force One,'" Mary said. "Then we all boarded the plane and flew to Hawaii. There was one small bedroom on Air Force One. None of us had slept much, and I was in a seat dozing off.
"Pat Nixon came to me and said, 'Mary, Mary, come with me. I made Dick get out of his bed. I said you need the rest more than him.' We went into the bedroom, and there were a lot of lights up on the console above the bed. She said, 'Don't touch anything,' tucked me in and left."
The plane landed to huge crowds, and eventually Haise and Lovell were reunited with their families. (Swigert was not married at the time of the mission.)
"They were very disappointed that they didn't get to land on the moon," Mary said. "Fred said after the explosion that their training kicked in, and they did what they had to do although they were realistic that they might not get back.
"I had a feeling of quietness within me as I was trying to stay calm for the baby. In some ways, I stepped back from the turmoil going on around me. I felt it would turn out OK, but I was realistic. I knew a lot about the spacecraft by then."
About a month before the launch, Mary had asked each of her three children to write a letter to their dad to go into space with him. "He said he read them while they were headed toward the moon," she said. "After the explosion, he thought he would never see them again."
However, with the astronauts' safe return to Earth, Mary had to deal with practical issues. With all the media attention on her and the other family members, "I had to go out and buy more maternity clothes after they landed," she said.
Ironically, her obstetrician advised her not to fly to Florida for the Apollo 13 launch, but then a few days later, she ended up flying to Hawaii to be reunited with her husband.
"I was 6 ½ months pregnant, and my obstetrician got a call from the White House doctor, who asked him to come along on Air Force One for the flight to Hawaii," Mary said. "He said he hadn't delivered a baby in 20 years and didn't want to be responsible."
In the movie about Apollo 13's flight, "Hollywood portrayed me as young and not media savvy even though by then I had been talking to the press for a number of years," Mary said. "But overall they did a good job, and Fred was pleased. They based the movie on a book that Jim Lovell wrote about the experience.
"We all flew to Houston for a private screening before it opened. It was fun to hear the comments from people, and I got to meet the stars of the movie."
Later, Mary went with friends to see the movie again in Santa Fe. "They were kidding me and joking, and we almost got kicked out of the theater," she said.
The Haises got invited to the White House twice - once for a formal dinner before Apollo 11 launched when Lyndon Johnson was president, and then again for a dinner in the family quarters with the Nixons after Apollo 13 landed.
The astronauts and their families also were invited to Camp David.
"We each had our own cottage, and there were no kids along," Mary said. "But they left Camp David jackets for each child in the right sizes. I don't know how they did that so quickly as President Nixon had just mentioned it at dinner."
Life returned to normal for a while, and Mary gave birth to her fourth child in July, but the media circus was not yet over.
That fall, from Oct. 1 to 15, the hero astronauts and their wives went on a Presidential Goodwill Tour, as it was dubbed, to Europe. They flew on one of the planes used as Air Force One, were greeted by heads of state and huge crowds at every stop, and were guests of honor in parades. Stops included Iceland, Switzerland, Ireland, Malta, Germany, Crete and Greece.
"We learned that cathedrals in Europe were packed with people praying for three days when Apollo 13 was in trouble," Mary said. "There were crowds of thousands when we were there. You often couldn't see the end of the masses of people."
The family received a photo album after the trip filled with photos taken by government officials, and one picture taken in Limerick, Ireland, shows two cars filled with the astronauts and their families surrounded by crowds with only a tiny part of the roofs of the cars visible.
"We got a little vacation on Crete, and the villagers followed us like we were the Pied Piper," Mary said. "Interest in the flight went on for a long time. Years later, people would say to me, 'You were the one who was pregnant.'"
Mary said that she has wonderful memories of that heady time after Apollo 13's safe return to Earth.
"We met all kinds of interesting people," she said. "It is a marvelous time to look back on. The kids each have their own memories of it too, of course."
Mary also knows better than most people about the risks and rewards of space travel. "We all know space flight is dangerous, and astronauts can die," she said. "You know it's going to happen. Some people said space flights should stop because of deaths.
"I remember saying to the head of NASA that even if Fred knew what was going to happen, he would have gone anyway. We were doing something everybody believed in. All of us had a little piece in it. It was a very fulfilling time."