Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell meets man who designed trajectory that saved his life

Apollo 13 explosion, which forced the spacecraft to fly the lunar swing-by trajectory worked out by Paul Penzo.

On March 9, 2016, former Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell met the man who designed the lunar swing-by trajectory in which a spacecraft can loop around the Moon and return to Earth. Dr. Paul A. Penzo was the first person to work out the swing-by trajectory later employed by Apollos 8 and 13, and therefore, in a very real sense, helped to save Lovell’s life. However, in 46 years, the two men had never met – until a little over a week ago.

On April 14, 1970, an oxygen tank exploded aboard the Apollo 13 Command and Service Module. Two of the three crew members were en route to the Fra Mauro Highlands of the Moon. The crew of Apollo 13 consisted of Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise. In response to the accident, they shut down the command module Odyssey and moved into the lunar module Aquarius. In order to return safely to Earth, Apollo 13 had to swing around the Moon on a free-return trajectory. The maneuver is credited with saving the lives of the crew and returned them safely to Earth.

In December of 1968, when Lovell served as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 8, a similar maneuver was used to escape from lunar orbit and return to Earth. On that flight, Lovell, Bill Anders, and Commander Frank Borman became the first human beings to see another world up close.

At the 54th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium held in Greenbelt, MD, Jim McAdams, Mission Design Lead Engineer at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, spotted Penzo. McAdams recalled that Penzo had been his first group supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Having maintained occasional contact in the last 36 years with Paul,” McAdams said, “I recalled that Paul told me several years ago that he was the first person to design the type of lunar swingby trajectory used by both Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 [a life saver for that crew].”

McAdams, a Vice President on the American Astronautical Society’s (AAS) Board of Directors, participated on the Awards Committee that voted for Jim Lovell to receive an award at this AAS-organized symposium.

“After greeting Paul and his wife during the morning break,” McAdams said, “I asked them if they wished to meet Jim Lovell, and they provided an enthusiastic ‘yes’ reply.”

McAdams stepped into the presentation area, which was largely empty, and located Lovell. He introduced himself and told Lovell that there was someone there whom he “had to meet.”

“When I explained Paul’s being the first to design the circumlunar free-return trajectory, Jim Lovell took great interest and we stepped into the adjacent area in order to introduce Paul and Jim.”

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