Maintaining a cool and calm demeanour was tough. The truth is, I was about to meet a human being whose achievements have inspired and educated countless individuals across the world. Apollo 13 will forever sit in the history books, so the chance to meet the leader of that fateful mission was an honour in every sense of the word.
Captain James A. Lovell, along with his crew of Capt. John Swigert and Capt. Fred Haise, have travelled further from the surface of our dear planet than any other man or woman to have ever lived. A little over 400,000km. Forget Olympic size pools and football fields, that is over 30 times the diameter of the Earth itself. In a malfunctioning spacecraft, no less! If you have neither read one of the many books nor seen the film, beware the spoiler alert. They used the moon’s gravity to slingshot around and make a dramatic return home.
It is an achievement that Jim, as he prefers to be known, would make little fuss about. In fact, when he was reminded by one of the many star struck hand-shakers that day, he immediately made reference to the expertise of the engineers on the ground. To say Jim Lovell is a humble man is to emulate his penchant for understatement.
We went for a stroll and with a few hours to spare before he took to the stage, grabbed a coffee and found a quiet corner to sit down. The next hour or two was spent chatting about his experiences in flight school, as well as times spent in Africa, both topics close to my heart as my father was an aviator based in Kenya for much of his life. As word got around the hotel that Jim Lovell was sitting in the corner, every so often someone would come over to show their appreciation. Unflustered, he took selfies galore and had time for everyone and anyone that wished to spend it with him.
It quickly struck me how calm and gentle a man he was. No doubt these traits served him well as a test pilot before his NASA days, and indeed his character has been highly spoken about in many documentaries and historical accounts.
The time came to make our way to the large hall where he was due to speak to an audience of wide-eyed engineers. I could see how much it meant to them, and they let him know by giving him a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. He conducted his presentation with class, delivering intriguing facts and conveying the emotions of that time spent in cold, dark space almost 50 years ago. His precision and certainty made it feel like it happened last week!
Afterwards, we all had a glass of wine on the terrace in the fading Texan sunshine. He never changed from his cool, calm, collected demeanour and after some more handshakes and a few signatures, Jim respectfully took his leave.
I shook his hand once more and could find no more meaningful words than “Thank you”.
When remarkable things happen in this life, it’s rare that you know they are happening in that very moment. After 5 minutes I knew that I greatly respected him as a person, but it was only afterwards that I realised this was one of the greatest honours of my life and something that I will be proud to tell my grandchildren about one day.
Sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle, Jim Lovell rightfully has my utmost respect. Not just for his achievements as a pioneering astronaut, but for his authenticity, his humility and his kindness.
Earlier this year, one of the moon’s mountains was officially titled ‘Mount Marilyn’ after Jim’s wife. As he told me, you never achieve anything alone so I hope you will join me in wishing them both all the very best.