Few moments in television history have been so heart-pounding: The world watched in horror as the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 tried desperately to make it back to Earth after one of the ship’s oxygen tanks exploded. And those who didn’t see the moment live? Well, they can just catch the dramatic retelling in Ron Howard’s 1995 movie.
But while the film familiarized so many with the names of the three men that battled for their lives that day, few people truly know the story of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. Before they ever stepped foot into NASA headquarters, they’d left quite a mark on the world.
When Ron Howard’s epic space film Apollo 13 hit theaters, every single person who saw it was at the edge of their seat the whole time. The anxiety aboard the ship was palpable to everyone. And some very real men can vouch for that.
Tom Hanks portrayed real-life shuttle commander Jim Lovell, who stood by as Tom uttered the dreaded message, “Houston, we have a problem.” Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon were the leading men who represented the incredible real-life team. But how’d they do?
Here they are, the three men chosen to board NASA’s Apollo 13 shuttle launch on April 11, 1970: Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. It was a surreal experience to be chosen for what should have been the third moon landing ever.
When the big day finally arrived, all the excitement and hard work went down at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The world was sitting in front of their television screens awaiting the historic moment.
Kennedy Space Center
All of the training the three men endured finally came to a head — this was the moment everyone was waiting for. However, even though we knew the astronauts names, who exactly were these brave souls?
Let’s star with the commander Jim Lovell. He was the natural choice for the leader, considering he already had three missions and 572 hours of spaceflight on his resume. Plus, he had a Naval history.
Bettmann / Getty Images
Years before he joined NASA, he attended and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There, he learned his love of flying, and he was actually the member who spurred Ron Howard to make the film.
In 1994, Lovell teamed up with a journalist named Jeffrey Kluge, and they collaborated on the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. Of course, even though Lovell was the commander, his companions were just as vital.
Fred Haise, Jr. — portrayed by Bill Paxton in the film — was the lunar module pilot. This was first time he took charge as the main pilot; he served as a backup pilot for Apollo 8 and 11.
Bettmann / Getty Images
After graduating high school, Haise joined the Navy and then eventually moved onto the United States marine Corps, where he went through difficult, but necessary, training. Four years later, he joined NASA.
The third member of the Apollo 13 squad was the command module pilot named John Swigert Jr. (Kevin Bacon in the film). Hailing from Denver, Colorado, he served in the United States Air Force from 1953 to 1956.
After graduating from the Pilot Training Program and Gunnery School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, he flew missions in Japan and Korea. What many people don’t know, however, is he wasn’t initially supposed to join the Apollo 13 mission.
Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images
The man who originally was teamed up with Lovell and Haise was Ken Mattingly, but due to an exposure to German measles 48 hours before the launch, NASA was forced to find a replacement, which was Swigert.
So, the Apollo 13 team was complete with Lovell, Haise, and Swigert. The three men strapped into the massive shuttle and successfully blasted off into the universe while the world was glued to the television screen.
The launch was a complete success. The team contacted Houston once they were stable in space to reassure them all was well. However, all that changed two days later when Swigert investigated a loud banging sound.
Swigert stared in horror as he quickly realized one of the massive oxygen tanks on the ship exploded. This would make the lunar landing impossible. The trip instantly became a survival mission to get back home unscathed.
Swigert was the first astronaut to contact Houston to tell them, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Everyone in the room came together to assist in the most epic space return in history.
Miraculously, all three men managed to escape the shuttle via a small pod and return to Earth after 142 hours in space. The men landed in the Pacific Ocean a few miles from their rescue boat.
Lovell said of the doomed launch, “It was a tremendous success in the ability of people to get together, like the mission control team working with the flight crew to turn what was almost a certain catastrophe into successful recovery.”
The world will never forget the Apollo 13 debacle that nearly took three amazing astronauts’ lives. Still, they knew there was more in life than landing on the moon — they’d seen what happened to Neil Armstrong.
The name that comes to mind when you think of the moon is “Neil Armstrong.” He was one third of the three-person team that successfully landed on the moon, but the impact it had on him might not be what you think.
Neil Alden Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, in 1930. His father, Stephen, was a local government auditor, and the family moved constantly. This frequent change of location, however, impacted a major part of Neil’s life.
When he was a young boy, Neil’s father took him to the Cleveland Air Races, and he was immediately smitten with the thought of flying. Soon after, Neil actually flew in a jet and immediately knew where his passion lied.
While in high school, Neil obtained his pilot’s license and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. At age 17, he graduated and went to Purdue University where he unsurprisingly majored in aeronautical engineering.
Neil entered Purdue under a contract that stated once two years of college passed, he had to log two years of flight practice followed by 12 months of flying for the Navy. While under contract, Neil entered into war.
Neil was 21 when the Korean War broke out. He already qualified as a United States Navy pilot, which meant he was called into action. He soon made a name for himself as one of the best pilots around.
Over the course of three months in 1952 — from January to March — Neil ran almost 80 missions in total, an extremely impressive number. After the war, Neil finished his degree and made another momentous decision.
He married his college sweetheart Janet Shearon. The couple had three kids together, but the middle daughter tragically passed away from brain cancer when she was just a young child.
During this time, he was hard at work at Southern California’s Edwards Air Force Base High-Speed Flight Station where he excelled at almost everything he did. Neil’s peers recognized his talents, and in 1962, he had an incredible opportunity.
NASA made an announcement they’d be looking for potential astronauts. Neil filled out the paperwork and was accepted. In 1965, he was assigned to be a first-choice astronaut for the Gemini 8 launch into space one year later.
However, that mission didn’t go according to plan. During a docking exercise while in orbit, the vessel began to spin wildly, and the mission was aborted. Luckily, Neil and his partner safely landed into the Pacific Ocean.
But, luck was still on Neil’s side. One year after the Gemini 8 failure, he was chosen as one of the candidates for NASA’s Apollo mission to the moon. Training, however, almost proved fatal.
While manning one of the Lunar Landing Training Vehicles, Neil was forced to eject as the malfunctioning craft burst into flames on the ground below. Still, he was asked to pilot Apollo 11 to the moon, and he agreed.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin were the three men tasked with making the first ever moon landing. On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft blasted off Earth on its way to our moon.
The world watched in awe as the three astronauts successfully touched down on the gray surface. People held their breath as they watched Neil take the very first step onto the alien astronomical body.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were the now-legendary words spoken by Neil once he made contact. 21 hours later, he and Aldrin returned to the ship where Collins was waiting.
Eight days after Apollo 11 left Earth and landed on the moon, it returned home. Now, one would think Neil felt pride and joy, but he actually experienced the complete opposite. The trauma of losing his daughter, and other sadness began to creep up on him.
Neil was going off the rails. He developed an intense paranoia that someone was going to kidnap his children, and he barely wanted to discuss the moon landing with anyone. This was bizarre behavior seeing as he just made history.
He even divorced his own wife as four decades of marriage, so dark was his inner turmoil after landing on the moon. All the attention the moon landing brought him never really had a positive impact. something we’re only learning about now in movies such as First Man, which chronicles his struggles back on Earth.
While Neil might not have ever truly basked in his glory, his achievement was undeniably incredible. Sadly, he passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, but the world will always remember the first man on the moon.
Though he would not acknowledge his feat, his impact was undeniable. Two years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin so famously took a giant leap for mankind, NASA concluded two lunar landings weren’t enough. Organization executives wanted a third, so they cooked up the Apollo 14 mission.
The mission saw Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell suit up for what would be a nine-day jaunt to the moon.
Space.com via NASA
NASA scheduled the launch for October 1970, but, after the failure of the Apollo 13 mission, delayed it four months. So, it was January 31, 1971, when these three finally took off from the Kennedy Space Center.
The astronauts hoped, of course, that their scientific agenda up in space would change the way humanity thought about physics. About life. They didn’t know, however, that they’d make a discovery destined to shake the scientific community years later.
America Space via NASA
On February 5, the crew landed on the moon. Shepard and Mitchell took giant leaps of their own, while Roosa stayed in lunar orbit. Over the next 33 hours, the guys worked.
ECN via NASA
While in the orbiting shuttle, Roosa took photos of the Earth and moon, including the spot the future Apollo 16 was scheduled to land. He also germinated 500 tree seeds, which, fun fact, eventually became known as Moon Trees.
Meanwhile, on the moon’s surface, Shepard whacked a few golf balls with a club he built with some spare junk. Cool as that sounds, the real game-changing mission involved rocks.
Shepard and Mitchell collected almost 100 pounds of moon rocks. Scientists were no doubt licking their lips thinking of all the rare moon minerals and lunar geological practices these puppies would help them understand.
Nine days after takeoff, on February 9, the Apollo 14 crew landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. Back on Earth, they delivered their findings to NASA, where scientists eagerly went to work.
Unbeknownst to the Apollo 14 crew, however, was that amidst those hundreds of rocks was one that would have scientists completely baffled. A rock that had no business being on the moon.
This was learned decades later, after NASA loaned the rock to Curtin University in Australia. There, in 2018, Professor Alexander Nemchin made an eyebrow-raising observation about the rock (below).
The 1.8-gram sample contained granite, a mineral common on Earth but incredibly rare on the moon. “The sample also contains quartz (below),” Professor Nemchin added, “which is an even more unusual find on the moon.”
Blake Schwartz / flickr
Additionally, the rock contained zircon, and the chemistry was “very different from that of every other zircon grain ever analyzed in lunar samples,” he continued, “and remarkably similar to that of zircons found on Earth.”
In other words, somehow, among all the rocks collected by Shepard and Mitchell, was a rock formed on Earth! Professor Nemchin and his team were stumped: how could a stone make the journey without hitching a ride?
Professor Nemchin and his team put their heads together and composed a theory. The story behind the rock’s journey, as they saw it, started 4 billion years before the Apollo 14 crew stepped aboard their spacecraft.
See, back then, when the Earth was in its infancy, space proved a wild place. Asteroids were constantly slamming into the baby-faced planet, forming the landmasses we call home (because Bruce Willis wasn’t around to destroy them).
Some of those pre-Willis meteors hit with so much impact that they launched pieces of the earth’s surface a few dozen million miles, all the way up to the surface of the moon.
While this sounds insane, the moon during that time period was about three times closer to Earth than it is now. This explained why the rock collected by the Apollo crew was so clearly formed under terrestrial conditions.
An alternative theory is that conditions on the moon billions of years ago were, like, the total opposite of what they are now, and that allowed the rock to form as is. Nemchin and his crew found the asteroid catapult a more reasonable theory.
Either way, as team member Dr. David Kring, of the Universities Space Research Association, said, “it is an extraordinary find that helps paint a better picture of early Earth and the bombardment that modified our planet.”
Coincidentally, a few years before the Apollo 14 crew launched, Astronaut Gordon Cooper — who had a similar role to that of 14’s Stuart Roosa — first made a discovery from space that changed the way we saw history.
It was 1959 when NASA invited Cooper to Washington, D.C. as a potential candidate for the Mercury Project. The project sought to put a man into Earth’s orbit and then return him safely, and Cooper was an ideal candidate.
After placing him on a shortlist of 109 potential candidates, NASA selected Cooper as one of seven men for the program. In May 1963, he conducted his first mission aboard the Faith 7, a craft so small it could only fit someone under five feet and 11 inches tall.
The instructions NASA gave the enthusiastic Oklahoman were simple: go into space solo, survive, and study zero gravity’s prolonged effects on the human body. At least, this was the mission as far as the public was concerned…
NASA via Space Flight Insider
The project started out a rousing success. From May 15 to 16, for just about 34 hours, Cooper orbited Earth, becoming the first astronaut to sleep in space. But then, in the midst of this enormous accomplishment, disaster nearly struck…
As Faith 7 returned to Earth, the automatic piloting system malfunctioned. Experienced flier that he was, Cooper didn’t panic. Instead, he grabbed the controls and maneuvered the spacecraft into a perfect landing on a waiting aircraft carrier. His mission was complete… or was it?
NASA via Discovery
Though the public didn’t know it at the time, Cooper’s mission also involved taking pictures. “Man, all I do is take pictures, pictures, pictures,” he said in a message to ground control. “I’m up to 5,245 now.” But he wasn’t just looking for eye-catching images…
L. Gordon Cooper / NASA
Cooper’s camera was actually equipped to detect magnetic aberrations along the Earth’s surface. This allowed him to secretly look for Soviet nuclear bases or submarines off the coast of the United States…
RR Auction via Collect Space
In the process of searching for secret nuclear bases, Cooper also detected hundreds of anomalies near the Caribbean, which he carefully charted in his small Faith 7 spacecraft. These aberrations, he noticed, weren’t big enough to be nuclear sites. So, what were they?
Discovery Channel via Mother Nature Network
Cooper wasn’t sure what he’d spotted from space, but he had a few ideas. For an unknown reason, he never told NASA or the Department of Defense about these strange anomalies. He decided to embark on his own personal mission…
NASA via Discovery
Once safely back on Earth, Cooper started investigating his findings. The anomalies he saw all seemed bunched around old trading routes that had been highly trafficked by Spanish ships. Surely this was more than a coincidence…
Cooper quickly made the connection from the shipping routes to possible shipwrecks, and he researched everything he could regarding centuries-old shipwrecks. Eventually, he felt confident that he had, in fact, charted some of them from space! What did this all mean?
The world would have to wait to find out. He had a long and successful career, including a mission on the Gemini 5, during which he spent 190 hours in space. Still, Cooper never had the time to truly explore his findings. As he grew older, time started running out…
NASA via Honey Suckle Creek
Afflicted with Parkinson’s and nearing the end of his days, Cooper didn’t want his secret discovery to be for naught, so he phoned his friend, Darrell Miklos (right). An explorer who had experience hunting for rocket ship debris, Miklos could investigate on Cooper’s behalf.
Cooper passed away in 2004, but by then his map was safely in his friend’s possession. At long last, it was time for Miklos to investigate what Gordon Cooper had seen from space all of those decades ago. Was there any truth to it?
“I believed Gordon 100 percent,” Miklos told Parade magazine. “I didn’t need proof.” Neither did the Discovery Channel, which, along with Miklos, created Cooper’s Treasure, a 2017 TV show that documented the investigation.
Discovery UK / YouTube
So, what did they find? On one journey, Miklos and his crew traveled to a spot on Cooper’s map looking for evidence of a shipwreck. With the help of deep-sea diving gear, they surveyed the ocean’s floor, hoping for a sign…
Discovery UK / YouTube
Sure enough, the crew uncovered a massive anchor! They hauled it to their deck, and soon after they realized that it was from the era of Christopher Columbus. This made it an extremely valuable artifact from the past!
Discovery UK / YouTube
By mid-2017, Miklos and his crew had searched five spots on Cooper’s map, and at all five, they found evidence of a shipwreck. With hundreds of points still left to explore, what other treasures might be waiting for Miklos to uncover?
Miklos planned to visit the rest of the locations, but it would take time. Still, as he told Newsweek, “I hear Gordon all the time in the back of my head: ‘You’re on the right trail!'” And it sure looked that way.
Discovery Channel via ABC News
Regardless of whether Miklos would be able to spend the next few decades searching for his friend’s discoveries remains to be seen. Still, you know that Gordon Cooper—the Oklahoma boy who reached the stars—would be happy to see his secret finally paid off!
NASA via Collect Space