Apollo 13’s Forgotten Hero

Glynn Lunney, age 84, died last Friday. You’ve probably never heard of him. Let us tell you who we lost.

At 10:17 p.m. local time, April 13, 1970, Lunney began his regular shift as flight director in Houston’s Mission Control. Sixty-nine minutes earlier, the crew of Apollo 13 had reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Gene Kranz, flight director when the explosion occurred (and another hero of Apollo 13 — Ed Harris played him in the movie), could tell Lunney that a disastrous explosion of some sort had occurred and that the command module was losing oxygen and electrical power, but no one yet knew why or whether there was a fix.

During an Apollo lunar mission, the flight director — called just “Flight” in Mission Control — wielded absolute authority that is close to unique in the modern world. He could order astronauts, flight controllers and everyone in Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center to take whatever steps he considered necessary for the success of the mission. Theoretically, those orders could be overridden by his superiors. They never were.

With that authority came crushing public exposure. If the mission went well, Flight remained anonymous. But if Flight made a wrong choice and a crew was lost, he would be second-guessed, interrogated by presidential boards of inquiry and congressional committees, and condemned by the media. He would have to live with his mistake for the rest of his life.

It was in that context that Glynn Lunney set about preventing the astronauts from dying in a few hours and simultaneously figuring out how to get them safely home. No choice he made was without risk. Every step to keep them alive now had to be balanced against the effect it would have on keeping them alive until splashdown. He was 33 years old.

You can still listen to NASA’s tapes of Lunney’s intercom exchanges with the flight controllers as they tried at first to keep the command module functioning and then, realizing it was impossible, embarked on a procedure that neither the controllers nor the crew had ever practiced — moving Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert into the lunar module for much of the trip back to Earth. To do this, they had to close down the command module in such a way that it could be brought back to life after days in the cold of outer space and power up the lunar module without any help from the command module, something it hadn’t been designed for — all within a desperately short period of time.

You can listen, but you won’t understand what you’re hearing. The exchanges are rapid-fire bursts of queries and instructions, cryptic and uninterpretable to an outsider, marked by updates from a flight controller telling Lunney how much time remained before the command module went dead.

Lunney later recalled a moment when he realized the enormity of what they were up against. It was like a blow, he said, and then a hole into which he was starting to slide. If you know where to listen, you can hear his soft grunt as he is told of a particularly ominous problem. Silence for several seconds. Then comes a crisp question followed by a crisp instruction. The moment had passed.

Like a vaudeville juggler with a dozen plates spinning on top of sticks, Lunney went from one problem to another, keeping the plates spinning, sometimes getting back to the one at the other end of the row just as it was wobbling on its last revolution. Throughout it all, Lunney maintained the mildly distracted air of an experienced parent getting many small children ready for school.

Ninety-four minutes after Lunney came on shift, the command module was safely shut down and the crew was in a functioning lunar module. Glynn Lunney gave the credit to his team of controllers and the other support staff that spontaneously gathered at Mission Control that night. The crew of Apollo 13 landed safely three days later because of the extraordinary efforts by thousands of people around the country. But during the crucial period when the decision to use the lunar module as a lifeboat was made and the procedure for doing it was improvised and executed from scratch, a solitary man had all the authority and all the responsibility.

We have a poverty of language to describe courage that is neither physical nor moral but rather consists of the exercise of all of a person’s training and intellect while every emotional vulnerability is tested. What word shall we use to characterize correct decisions with life-and-death consequences, made with incomplete information, sometimes with only seconds to think about them, with the world watching, over and over again — grace under pressure for 94 minutes?

Whatever that word may be, it is needed to describe what Glynn Lunney did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Charles Murray is the coauthor of "Apollo," a history of NASA's lunar landing program.

Catherine Bly Cox is the coauthor of "Apollo," a history of NASA's lunar landing program.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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