When Apollo 13’s crew famously radioed, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Glynn Lunney was one of the flight directors who led the teams finding the solutions that ultimately brought the severely damaged spacecraft — and its crew — safely home.
Lunney, who passed away last week at the age of 84, started at what was then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a thermodynamics researcher fresh out of college. As NACA became NASA just one month later, he would rise to the post of flight director and lead the flight directors office, among other positions, before ending his NASA career as Space Shuttle program manager. From the first Mercury flights to the early years of the Space Shuttle program, Lunney played a role in nearly every major event in the first decades of the U.S. space program.
For America’s first crewed spaceflights in the Mercury program, Lunney helped develop procedures and plan the early missions. When it was time to fly, he played a variety of roles in NASA’s control centers. At just 28, he was selected as a flight director in the Gemini program, a role he’d play on missions including Gemini 9, 10, 11, and 12; the first uncrewed flight of a Saturn V rocket; and Apollo 7, 8, 11, and 13, among others.
The explosion that crippled Apollo 13 happened shortly before Lunney was due to come on shift with his “Black Team,” one of four that rotated in 8-hour overlapping shifts on Apollo flights. That shift would last 14 hours as they worked out the plans to keep the crew alive with the limited power and supplies available on the damaged spacecraft. At the same time, they had to determine a safe path for the unplanned early return and reentry. Lunney called it “the longest night” in NASA history. Known for his calm throughout this and all his time in Mission Control, Lunney emphasized the success was due to everyone involved: “I have always been so very proud to have been part of this Apollo 13 team, delivering our best when it was really needed.”
After leaving NASA, Lunney would remain involved in space programs, working for Rockwell and United Launch Alliance, including time back working on the shuttle program before he retired.