Astronaut's wife recalls harrowing days of Apollo 13
Fifty-two years after NASA attempted its third trip to the Moon via Apollo 13 — and the space agency worked quickly to ensure the astronauts returned safely after an accident — Mary Haise, then the wife of astronaut Fred Haise Jr., still vividly recalls the events of that time.
From its launch on April 11, 1970, to its return on April 17, Mary Haise joined a nervous audience as NASA staff worked to ensure the three astronauts on board, Fred Haise, Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert, were not the first crew to be lost or killed in space.
On April 11, 52 years to the day that Apollo 13 launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Haise recalled hoping beyond hope that her husband, the lunar module pilot for the mission, would return home safely along with the other two pilots from the ill-fated trip.
A routine stir of an oxygen tank ignited an already damaged wire insulation inside, which caused an explosion, making it impossible for the service module to complete its mission. The mishap occurred after the crew had only been in space for two days after launching from the Kennedy Space Center.
"I was actually at my home (in Houston)," said Mary Haise, who recently moved into Summerfield Estates Retirement Community in Tigard, about the day she learned the crew was in trouble. "I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child,"
Now 87, Mary Haise has lived in the Summerfield community for 18 years.
Because Fred Haise had been the backup astronaut for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, commander and lunar module pilot, respectively, for Apollo 11, Mary Haise said it was a given that her husband would go to the Moon on the Apollo 13 mission "because that's the way it worked."
Before the mission even started, Mary Haise and the other astronauts' wives or loved ones had a NASA person actually move into their homes, staying with them for the duration of the spaceflight.
Haise said on the day the mission went bad, she had been pulling into her driveway when she saw the NASA man on the phone, telling her not to go inside. She did anyway, pushing past the reporters camped on her lawn — similar to those portrayed on astronaut Jim Lovell's yard in the 1995 film "Apollo 11."
That's where she watched newsman Walter Cronkite tell the country about the explosion that destroyed the service module's life support system, as well as its propulsion system.
"And that's how I found out, like the whole country did," Mary Haise recalled.
She noted that the astronauts' families and loved ones were able to hear all of NASA's transmissions to the crew of Apollo 13 through a black box the space agency had placed on her television set.
Mary Haise said when the accident was announced it was such a shock, finding herself unable to breathe.
Luckily, Armstrong lived a few doors down. Haise said he ended up hopping over a neighbor's tall fence to get into her backyard, knowing she was in distress.
"When I saw him, it was like I could take a breath. It was just incredible," Mary Haise recalled. Armstrong hugged her, stayed with her and helped her through the ordeal.
What others in her house were worried about was that Mary Haise's baby would be born prematurely due to the stress she was encountering. She said she could hear several people talking about that possibility.
"And I went upstairs for a little and sat in the baby's room, which we had already fixed up for him, and quietly by myself sat there and felt like there was a presence in the room and with me. … When that happened, I felt calm and I walked back downstairs and I said, 'OK, everybody, be quiet,' and I said to them, 'This baby is not going to be born. He's not ready yet … and I know I am going to be alright and my children are going to be alright no matter what happens,'" she said.
Haise said she knew her family had the strength to carry on if anything happened and was well aware of the dangers her husband faced. He had been a test pilot previously, a very dangerous job in itself.
"We were used to things that could happen," she said, adding that she believed in what Fred Haise was doing.
One thing that made her life less stressful was knowing that the NASA man living with them would go out and talk with the press, never asking her to go out herself.
"They didn't have me go out until they landed and I went out with the children at that point," Mary Haise recalled.
Ultimately, the mission control crew came up with a solution that allowed the crew that kept them alive for four days in the lunar module
That last day before the spacecraft returned, Mary Haise said NASA had prepared her for the worst, saying the heat shield had been badly damaged in the explosion and warning her that the astronauts could burn up during re-entry, or they could possibly be lost in space.
Mary Haise also remembers the countdown newscasters were using to show the point of survivable re-entry into the atmosphere had already came and gone — meaning that from that point, Apollo 13 would either re-enter the atmosphere safely, or the astronauts would perish.
"And then, all of a sudden, it's a miracle (we saw) three parachutes coming right down there on the TV," she said, remembering watching the scene with her children on television. Seconds later, champagne corks were popping in her kitchen, she said.
The Apollo 13 crew received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, while members of mission control in Houston received the Medal of Honor.
Mary Haise said she enjoyed the cinematic release of "Apollo 13," directed by Ron Howard.
"It was a wonderful movie," she said. She said Fred Haise had been asked to be the go-between with NASA and the movie studio, but he declined, saying they would end up "Hollywood-up-it," something she said really didn't happen very much. She noted that may have been because of the fact that both actor Tom Hanks and Howard were big space buffs.
By the time the movie was produced, the Haises had long since been divorced. Although their marriage ended in 1978, the Haises have remained close. Fred is now 88.
Fred Haise was played by the late Bill Paxton in "Apollo 13," which also featured Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise. Actress Tracy Reiner, the daughter of actress and director Penny Marshall, played Mary Haise in the movie.
"I thought she did a good job," said Mary Haise.
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