Astronaut earned Flying Yankees a footnote in history

  • Published
  • By Maj. Bryon Turner
  • 103rd Airlift Wing, Public Affairs
The members of the Connecticut Air National Guard have always held true to the old Air Force motto "Aim High," but none have aimed as high as the late John L. Swigert Jr., who reached for the stars and forever earned the Flying Yankees a footnote in the history books.

Swigert served with the Flying Yankees from 1960 through 1965, flying the F-86 Sabre and the F-100 Super-Sabre aircraft with the 118th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron as a traditional Guardsman while working full time as a test pilot and engineer for Pratt & Whitney, flying the B-45 Tornado and the B-66 Destroyer aircraft.

During that time, NASA was actively recruiting astronaut candidates and Swigert was nominated to the program by the late Brig. Gen. George R. Stanley, who served as the Chief of Staff of the Connecticut Air National Guard. Stanley saw potential in Swigert and NASA saw it too, selecting him to serve as one of the nation's 19 newest astronauts out of 351 applicants in 1966.

Swigert was chosen to serve as the backup command module pilot for the famed Apollo 13 mission to the moon, but replaced prime crew member Ken Mattingly after he was inadvertently exposed to the German measles just a few days before the launch on April 11, 1970.

With only a few days to prepare for the mission, Swigert had his work cut out for him.
"(Swigert) knew the command module pretty good. He--it is true--he had not trained for the last month and a half because normally the backup crew at that stage are the gofers," Swigert's commander on Apollo 13, Jim Lovell, recalled in a 1999 oral interview with NASA.
Swigert used the little preparation time he had wisely, training with the crew and earning accolades from his mission commander.

"Jack proved out to be a very, very competent pilot," said Lovell.

Those skills, along with his experiences as a military aviator and a test pilot, would come in handy on the fated Apollo 13 mission.

"Houston, we've had a problem here," said Lovell after Swigert saw a warning light and the crew heard a bang.

Just before the mission reached its 56th hour, one of the space craft's oxygen tanks exploded causing another to fail. The command module Swigert piloted lost its normal supply of electricity, light and water.

The crew of the Apollo 13 mission would never land on the moon; their mission was now to find a safe way home. The command module, designed to bring the crew home, was now no longer a viable option for the crew.

As oxygen vented into space, experts on earth quickly realized the mission's lunar module would need to play a critical part in the crew's safe return. The crew would need to huddle in the module to survive the journey home. Moments after the explosion, Jack Lousma, the Capsule Communicator at Mission Control back on earth, spoke to the crew.

"It is slowly going to zero, and we are starting to think about the LM lifeboat," said Lousma.
"That's what we have been thinking about too," replied Swigert.

Experts on earth began to develop plans and procedures for getting the crew home and tested them on simulators. Meanwhile, Swigert remained in the command module to shut down all of its systems, preserving critical remaining power while the rest of the crew worked to solve a list of issues with their "life boat" solution.

The astronauts worked in concert with specialists on earth, tackling problems ranging from carbon dioxide filters from one module that were incompatible with the life-preserving system in their lunar module 'life boat,' to recalibrating the command module's navigation system to work properly within the lunar module despite the equipment's inability to sight a star for reference among all of the debris from their ship's earlier explosion.

Ultimately, they tackled a number of obstacles and hunkered down in the lunar module with every nonessential system powered down as temperatures rapidly dipped to near freezing and dehydration from water rationing set in. Despite the dangers and general uncomfortable conditions lasting for four days, they made it home in one piece as the world watched.

"There has poured into the White House in these past 24 hours, an unprecedented number of wires and letters and cables," said the late President Richard Nixon. "There has poured in the kind of messages that have told me over and over again that it is vitally important to convey to the wives, to the astronauts, and to the men and women on the ground NASA the fact that not just Americans but people all over the world, not just people in the free world but people in the Communist world, people of all religions, of all faiths, of all political beliefs, that they also were on that trip with these men." The crew was presented with the Presidential Freedom Medal by President Richard Nixon on April 18, 1970.

"I think it is important that, out of this mission, we recognize that it was not a failure," said Nixon. "...The three astronauts did not reach the moon but they reached the hearts of millions of people in America and in the world. They reminded us in these days when we have this magnificent technocracy, that men do count, the individual does count. They reminded us that in these days machines can go wrong and that when machines go wrong, then the man or the woman, as the case may be, really counts."

The legendary story was the subject of a 1995 Hollywood film titled "Apollo 13" in which Swigert was played by actor Kevin Bacon and Lovell was played by actor Tom Hanks. A quick internet search on the topic yields a number of references to Swigert and his role in the Apollo 13 mission that include footnotes and brief mentions of Swigert's time with the Connecticut Air National Guard, but his story did not end there.

Swigert would later successfully run for Congress, but unfortunately developed a malignant tumor during his campaign in 1982. The cancer had spread to his bone marrow and lungs and would take his life just eight days before Swigert began his Congressional term; a tragic ending for a Flying Yankee who truly aimed high throughout his storied life.

The following was said by President Nixon during the Presidential Medal of Freedom presentation:

"To James Arthur Lovell, Jr., to Fred Wallace Haise, Jr., to John Leonard Swigert, Jr. The citation on each of your medals will read as follows."

"Adversity brings out the character of a man. Confronted suddenly and unexpectedly with grave peril in the far reaches of space, he demonstrated a calm courage and quiet heroism that stand as an example to men everywhere. His safe return is a triumph of the human spirit--of those special qualities of man himself we rely on when machines fall, and that we rely on also for those things that machines cannot do."

"From the start, the exploration of space has been hazardous adventure. The voyage of Apollo 13 dramatized its risks. The men of Apollo 13, by their poise and skill under the most intense kind of pressure, epitomized the character that accepts danger and surmounts it. Theirs is the spirit that built America. With gratitude and admiration, America salutes their spirit and their achievement."

Fun fact just in time for tax season

The Apollo 13 mission started on a humorous note when Swigert communicated his concerns about his tax return from space.

"How do I apply for an extension? Things kind of happened real fast down there and I need an extension," said Swigert from space to those back on earth listening from Mission Control who in turn began to laugh. "I'm really serious."

As the story goes, Flight director Glynn Lunney let Swigert know that tax payers who were out of country received 60-day tax filing extensions.

"I assume this applies," quipped Lunney.

The incident was noted by the editorial staff in the May 1970 issue of The Yankee Courier where they stated the following, "Due to the fact that he was a last-minute replacement and that he radioed from outer space that he had forgotten to file his income tax, Swigert was the subject of extensive news coverage."

President Nixon took the opportunity to make light of the situation during the Apollo 13's Presidential Medal of Freedom presentation saying, "Before I ask Captain Lovell to respond on behalf of this great crew, I have one personal matter that I want to mention to Mr. Swigert. I noticed that he had a little problem about filing his income tax return. Don't worry about it. I happen to know the collector."