“This is Houston. Say again please,” came the calm response from Grand Rapids native Jack Lousma to Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert’s terse report: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here!” Lousma was in the midst of a scheduled eight hour shift as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) in the Mission Control Center (MCC), charged with keeping in touch with fellow astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Swigert while in transit to the moon.
Following that haunting exchange, Lousma’s shift would extend to 16 hours as he relayed vital information to the imperiled crew drawn from experts from throughout Apollo Mission Control and beyond in a desperate effort to bring the three astronauts -- their spacecraft partially disabled by an explosion of an oxygen supply tank -- safely home.
Lousma and 18 other selectees had joined the astronaut corps in 1966. He was in the midst of training for a future trip to the moon using simulators of the Lunar Module, which was to become the Apollo 13 crew’s lifeboat during the tense days to follow. The CAPCOM is the sole communicator with onboard astronauts, so with his experience and knowledge, Lousma was the right man to have on duty during that critical period.
“I was part of a group of guys getting ready to go to the moon. I expected to go, and then the last three flights were cancelled,” Lousma said in a recent phone conversation about his remarkable career. That career would include a two month stay in earth orbit aboard the Skylab space station in 1973, and command of the third flight of the Columbia space shuttle in 1982.
The Marine colonel, with a strong background in aeronautical engineering and flying aircraft, was less than a year into his rigorous training routines when, on January 27, 1967, the tragic Apollo 1 spacecraft fire took the lives of veteran astronauts Gus Grissom (one of the original Mercury 7) and Edward White (1st American space walker), as well as Roger Chaffee, who was anticipating his first flight into space.
“Chaffee and I did meet, and we spoke of being both born in Grand Rapids, but for the most part he was busy training for the first orbital test flight,” Lousma said. Lousma would become a member of the Support Crew for Apollo 9 of March 1969, but did not fly in the earth-orbital test of the spindly legged module that would carry Apollo 11 astronauts to their historic, lunar landing four and one half months later.
Lousma was born in 1936 and has memories of attending kindergarten at Huff School in northeast Grand Rapids. Early on, the family moved to Ann Arbor so his father could support the World War II effort building bombers at a former Ford plant nearby.
“I remember my cousin, who was a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flying a fighter low and doing loops over my grandfather’s barn near Drenthe when I was about six years old. “I was thinking I sure would like to do that,” Lousma said during our conversation.
He went on to get a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan, where he also played varsity football. “I became a 'Go Blue' guy at an early age, but during my studies, I came to realize I would rather fly airplanes than design them.”
Lousma married his wife Gratia in 1956, and upon graduation from U of M in 1959, discovered that the Marines, unlike the Army and Navy cadet programs, would take married men as pilots. He enlisted and embraced the challenge that would follow. The rigorous Marine training produced a crack pilot who flew attack and reconnaissance jets in the US, Far East, and Caribbean, and who earned a graduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School.
All of this happened during the infancy of the US effort to place humans in space. A 1965 announcement in a Marine airbase newsletter would greatly affect Lousma’s life course. NASA was inviting applicants for its fifth group of astronauts. Lousma told me that Gratia went along with his desire to apply because with thousands of potential applicants, “What were the chances of acceptance?” Then came a memorable call from Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American to cross the space frontier. “Do you still want to work with us?”
Lousma’s high levels of achievement during astronaut training served him well despite cancellation of missions that might have carried him to the moon. By the late 60s, planning was underway for a prototype space station, Skylab, that would provide knowledge necessary to build the present International Space Station. After Skylab had been hoisted into orbit, several crews visited to determine the physical and psychological effects of long term weightlessness on humans.
Skylab was fabricated from the third stage of the giant Apollo Saturn booster no longer needed for the cancelled moon missions. As a member of the three person crew for the 2nd long-duration stay, Lousma was in orbit for two months in mid-1973. “We were guinea pigs,” he said. “I didn’t feel too good at first, but adapted quickly and had no further problems.” He said the experience of floating around was exhilarating, especially during space walks required to repair and service Skylab.
“When inside looking through a porthole, the view of earth from 300 miles up is impressive but restrictive,” Lousma said. “It is nothing like the experience you encounter when floating into the void outside the spacecraft. Upon emerging, you are dazzled by sunlight in a black sky, and now you can see the entire ball of the earth. It is like being on a magic carpet; the ultimate orbital experience.”
Lousma logged eleven hours of EVA (spacewalk) activity and admits he would make any excuse to stay out as long as possible. “Because we were orbiting earth at 17,500 miles an hour, we spent 60 minutes in sunlight and 30 minutes in darkness during every orbit. Twilight is spectacular but transitions come very quickly at that speed.”
Lousma told me that during darkness, the sky was filled with five times as many stars as can be seen on the darkest nights on earth, even from the highest mountaintops. Looking down on earth, the lights of major cities gleamed across a giant curved panorama.
Lousma remained active with NASA long enough to make a final flight into space with the coming of the Space Shuttle. NASA’s focus had shifted to development of reusable hardware with the potential to reduce costs for assembling the proposed International Space Station, and also to service the growing inventory of orbiting satellites. Were it not for the Space Shuttle, the remarkable working life of the famous Hubble Space Telescope would have been considerably shortened.
Lousma logged his final eight days in space in 1982 as Commander of the third orbital flight test of the first shuttle, Columbia, which occurred while the program was still in its infancy. After a brief stint in politics, he went on to a business career and educational work in support of US space and defense programs. He and Gratia retired to Texas in 2014, where the majority of their four children and sixteen grandchildren reside.