A small-town boy from Mississippi would grow up to become an expert in crisis management.

As the Apollo 13 spacecraft traveled to the moon in April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded, preventing a lunar landing and endangering the crew. Now, Apollo 13’s lunar module pilot, Fred Haise, has written an autobiography, Never Panic Early. The book charts Haise’s life prior to his acceptance in NASA’s astronaut program in 1966. Raised in Biloxi during the Depression, Haise learned to fly in the U.S. Navy before becoming a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot and later working as a test pilot for NASA. The book provides a detailed account of Apollo 13, which Haise flew with crewmates Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert. Though Haise never fulfilled his dream of walking on the moon, the mission was still an engineering triumph—for safely returning the crew to Earth. The harrowing tale became the subject of the 1995 hit film, Apollo 13. Haise recently spoke with Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.


Tell me about the origins of the book title, Never Panic Early.

It was something I dreamed up that fit a lot of circumstances I had experienced. Instead of panicking, quickly look through your options on the best thing to do following a dire circumstance.


Did Ron Howard, the director of Apollo 13, speak with you before or during the filming?

I met with Ron. And I met with Tom Hanks and the producer and I think the assistant director. I hosted them in an office I had when I was president of Grumman Technical Services in Florida, close to the Kennedy Space Center. This was before filming. They had already reviewed a lot of information NASA had given them in the mission report. They had a number of questions they went through with me to get my interpretation. But I was never involved once they started filming.


What did you think when you saw the film?

Well, I’d have to say I enjoyed it. I was bothered initially by a couple things that weren’t technically correct and by some of the drama thrown in that wasn’t real. A crew argument, for example. Jim Lovell hugging me. Then they greatly exaggerated our manual maneuvers. We did two mid-course burns on the way back because we didn’t have a computer, which had been shut down to save power. They showed only one of those manual maneuvers in the movie, and they depicted the Earth going up and down like we were about to go out of control—and of course we didn’t. When we did those burns, both of them, we didn’t deviate very far in terms of attitude. And Ron showed only one mission control team. There were four of them for Apollo 13, led by four flight directors. But as Ron explained it: “You’ve only got two hours or so in a movie. You can only develop so many characters.”


In the film, Tom Hanks—as Jim Lovell—famously says: “Houston, we have a problem.” But your book makes clear those weren’t the exact words.

Yes, it was actually Jack Swigert who initially said: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”


When you heard the tank explode, how quickly did your disappointment about not landing on the moon change to concern you might not see your family again?

When the explosion happened, I was in the lunar module, putting away equipment we had pulled out for a TV show. In fact, if the TV show had gone on a while longer, we would’ve had the explosion on live TV. When I heard the noise, I was confused. I knew it was something unusual—and probably bad. But it wasn’t until I drifted up into the command module and saw the warning lights on the instrument the panel that I realized we had lost one of two oxygen tanks, tank two. And that’s when I felt this sick feeling in my stomach. I knew that was an automatic mission abort, but not life-threatening as long as the other oxygen tank was okay. But we would discover that the other tank was slowly leaking. Without the leak, we would have kept everything powered up and then worked out a plan to get us home without even going into lunar orbit.

We spent the next 50 minutes working with mission control, trying different things to stop the leak. When we ran out of ideas, it became clear that the tank was going to empty. And when that happened, we’d lose all power, the fuel-cell power, which was the main power source in the capsule. So that’s when I knew that the situation was a lot more serious. I was hoping that the lunar module had not been damaged because it could provide things like life support, communication, and an environmental system once we shut down the command module. At that moment, I didn’t know what the plan B was going to be. That was being worked offline by [flight director] Gene Kranz with a brain trust he had assembled.


Can you comment on how physically uncomfortable the return trip was?

The lunar module, which was our lifeboat, had six batteries intended to last about two days during a normal mission: four in the descent stage and two in the ascent stage. But now we needed them to last four days to get us home. So that led to cutting off all this equipment, particularly electronics equipment, which of course generates heat. Basically, the only equipment we left on was for communication and the environment, but that didn’t provide much warmth. It got very cold and very damp. We had three sets of underwear on. We did not have a temperature gauge inside the lunar module, but I’m guessing it was somewhere in the high 30s Fahrenheit.


How did you pass the time during the trip back to Earth?

I can tell you that we didn’t shoot the breeze much, and we had long periods of nothing to do. In that environment, you couldn’t get into a deep sleep—you just had catnaps. In between things, mission control might want a reading or something. I had a lot of time to look out the window and view amazing scenes of the Earth and the moon as progressively one got smaller and one got bigger. Then mission control would pipe up with the next procedure, and we had to execute it.


Air and Space Live Chat

For the annual Donald D. Engen Flight Jacket Night lecture, Fred Haise talked about his new book, Never Panic Early, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. See a recording of the chat.

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