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Happy 90th birthday, James Lovell, Chicago’s space pioneer

Former astronaut James Lovell last year. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

James Lovell was the astronaut who famously uttered those words after an explosion aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970. He was the flight commander charged with landing on the moon. After an oxygen tank exploded, Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise had to call off their mission and figure out how to get back to Earth.

Twenty-five years later, actor Tom Hanks played Lovell in a Hollywood film about their epic journey.

Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, James Lovell, and John Swigert (left to right) leave a helicopter to step aboard the carrier Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean after their successful recovery. | AP
Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, James Lovell, and John Swigert (left to right) leave a helicopter to step aboard the carrier Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean after their successful recovery. | AP

We’d like to give this American hero, who lives in a north suburb of Chicago, a shout-out as he turns 90 Sunday. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium is celebrating Lovell’s achievements in a yearlong campaign, encouraging space fans to write Lovell notes to let him know what kind of impact his space travels had on them.

EDITORIAL

Lovell’s name is synonymous with Apollo 13, but we’ll never forget his Apollo 8 mission in 1968. It was the first manned flight to break from the Earth’s orbit and travel around the moon.

RELATED: Lovell spoke to Sun-Times reporter Robert Herguth about his faith in a podcast last year.

We asked author Robert Kurson, whose book “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon” will be out next month, to give a few good reasons to celebrate Lovell today. Here’s his excellent list:

  1. Jim Lovell donated many of his coolest space-related memorabilia and artifacts to the Adler Planetarium, giving Chicagoans and other visitors an intimate glimpse into the early years of space travel and exploration.
  2. He is a wonderful explainer and storyteller who often makes himself available to media and others who are interested in NASA, space, the Moon, and the future of space travel.
  3. He is a devoted husband, father and family man who has been married to the same woman, Marilyn, for 65 years. (Astronaut life was notoriously hard on marriages. In fact, the crew of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, Lovell, and Bill Anders — is the only crew from either the Gemini or Apollo programs whose marriages all survived intact.)
  4. He is not just one of the nicest astronauts you’ll meet, he’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet, a reputation that goes back to his earliest days with NASA.
  5. Unlike some astronauts, he dreamed as a kid of flying on rockets into space and exploring the cosmos, and he seems to have lost little of that boyhood wonder for exploration to this day.
  6. He had a golden retriever that liked to watch the Apollo 13 movie when it played on television at his home.

Happy Birthday, Commander James Lovell. You continue to make Chicago proud.

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