Glynn Lunney, the NASA flight director who led the rescue of three Apollo 13 astronauts when their spacecraft ran into trouble en route to the moon, has died aged 84. Lunney passed away on March 19 in Clear Lake, Texas from stomach cancer.
The success of the United States’ space program would have been impossible without the work of people like Lunney, an aerospace engineer based at NASA’s command center in Houston when the radio crackled with the words “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” on April 13, 1970.
He joined NASA from its earliest days in 1958 and became the agency’s chief flight director in 1968, in time to oversee humanity’s maiden moon landing led by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board Apollo 11.
His work was key to developing the Apollo 11 flight procedures and enabling its pioneering journey, when the space race was an inseparable part of the Cold War’s strategic deterrence doctrine. Lunney was part of a team pushing scientific boundaries while providing thrilling propaganda material for the United States, which the country broadcast across the globe.
But Lunney will be best remembered for his work bringing the astronauts onboard Apollo 13 – James Lovell, Fred Haise and John Swigert – back to safety, remaining calm under the immense pressure of the mission while barely into his thirties.
When the spaceship’s service module, which housed its oxygen tanks and generator, was damaged in an explosion, the astronauts were told to stay inside their lunar lander instead, which was battery-powered. They abandoned a lunar landing and remained inside the lander, though it was intended to be used by two men for two days only.
The crew swapped back into their command module just before the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and they were able to make a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Lunney described his cool-headed decision-making as “the best piece of operations work I ever did or could hope to do.”
“We built a quarter-million-mile space highway paved by one decision, one choice and one innovation at a time, repeated constantly over almost four days to bring the crew safely home,” he said in an interview recorded as part of NASA’s oral history project. “This space highway guided the crippled ship back to planet Earth, where people from all continents were bonded in support of these three explorers-in-peril. It was an inspiring and emotional feeling, reminding us once again of our common humanity.”
It was far from his last NASA mission, however. In July 1975, another Apollo spacecraft with three astronauts docked with the Russian Soyuz spaceship. As the last mission of the Apollo program, and the first joint mission of two great rivals in space, it was a signal of rapprochement. The crews conducted experiments together and exchanged flags and gifts, laying the groundwork for what would later become the International Space Station.
Lunney, a great behind-the-scenes operator and space choreographer, watched all these developments from Earth. His efforts in guiding Apollo 13 home were later immortalized in the Ron Howard movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks.