Astronaut Fred Haise details the harrowing story of Apollo 13 during President’s Lecture

Themes from President Kennedy’s ‘Moon Speech’ just as pertinent 55 years later

On the 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” delivered at Rice Stadium, Fred Haise, Apollo 13 astronaut and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented “Failure Is Not an Option: Embodying the Credo, ‘We Do This Not Because It Is Easy but Because It Is Hard’” Sept. 12 in the Shepherd School of Music’s Stude Concert Hall.

Rice President David Leebron addressed the standing-room-only crowd by quoting a passage from Kennedy’s 1962 speech: “We meet in a college noted for knowledge in a city noted for progress in a state noted for strength and we stand in need of all three. For we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance.”

“I wish I wrote those words as they are as apt today as they were exactly 55 years ago,” Leebron said. “What President Kennedy so keenly grasped during his visit to Rice is the deep connection between science and human progress — that the human drive and exploration are not only a drive to reach new worlds and new places, but to achieve new knowledge, and through knowledge, new capabilities.”

Rice has played an important role in the space program. For a short while, Rice owned the land where NASA now sits. Fourteen astronauts are Rice graduates, and the Rice Space Institute and Baker Institute Space Policy Program seek to continue to advance the space program.
Leebron marveled at the community interest in the lecture.

“We were truly amazed by the outpouring of interest in Fred Haise’s talk, even as we were recovering from Hurricane Harvey,” Leebron said. “This is certainly because of the special role this city plays in the space program. Perhaps also because this is a time that we want to celebrate the triumph of human spirit and ingenuity over the greatest of challenges. Perhaps this is a time where we are interested in the overcoming of disaster and the turning of disaster into success. And that is what in many ways the Apollo 13 mission stands for.”

Leebron then mentioned the infamously misquoted phrase, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” made by Haise’s crewmate Jack Swigert just after the explosion that crippled Apollo 13.

“That phrase seems apt as we gather this evening,” Leebron said. “Houston, we’ve had a problem, and like those thousands involved in bringing Apollo 13 astronauts safely to Earth, Houston is mobilizing to help those in distress.”

Leebron then introduced Haise as “astronaut and extraordinary American.”

“My space story really starts when Kennedy, after just four months in office, told the world we’re going to the moon within this decade,” Haise said. “I discussed that with my compatriots and we were just astounded. I have no idea what President Kennedy’s advisers or NASA told him to make that bold leap.”

Haise credited that speech for changing his life and gave an overview of the six-day Apollo 13 mission.

“The mission was fairly normal in all respects until a little over two days out,” Haise said. “The next morning, we woke up getting ready to go into lunar orbit and prepare for landing. That ended up being a real long day.”

Haise would have been the sixth person to walk on the moon had the mission not been aborted due to the explosion of an oxygen tank.

“Sleep was somewhat sporadic as it got very damp, very cold,” Haise said. “We gave up on the freeze-dried food, which was our primary food supply, because it required hot water. So, we lived off mostly wet packs. I lived mostly off of peanuts and cookie and bread cubes, which were in a special cupboard area.”

While speaking, Haise showed a clip of actual footage from the mission, which happened to be 13 minutes long.

“We had abused the command module and shut it completely off,” Haise said. “It had never intended to be turned off, so there was no procedure to turn it back on. So, people on the ground had to work on this procedure for three days. We had no paper, of course. We wrote the procedure down on the back of checklists.”

Although Apollo 13 is often referred to as an unlucky mission, Haise considers himself and his crewmates to be incredibly lucky.

“I look back on my career as I approach 84 years old and I truly feel very fortunate to have had that career and to have been involved in the things I’ve been involved with,” Haise said. “They’ve all been interesting, exciting and rewarding.”

Before the question-and-answer portion of the evening, the audience honored Haise with a standing ovation.

The lecture was followed by a conversation on the future of the U.S. space program featuring Haise, Rice Space Institute Director David Alexander and Johnson Space Center Director and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa.

“We always look at Kennedy’s ‘Moon Speech’ as a piece of history, but the speech is all about the future,” Alexander said. “It talks about students and universities being involved in space.”

Ochoa then gave an overview of the future of space exploration.

“We want to build up some infrastructure in orbit around the moon,” Ochoa said, noting that over the course of a decade they want “to develop and demonstrate the capabilities that you actually need to go much farther out.”

When asked if he is excited about the future of the U.S. space program, Haise said he would like to see it happen faster.

“The human race has to be a space veteran,” Haise said. “If we want to hang out as a race, someday we’ll need a space craft. The Earth is like a spacecraft. It’s traveling through the solar system and it would be nice to have a plan B.”

The lecture was co-sponsored with the Rice Space Institute and is part of a longer program series in commemoration of the 55th anniversary of Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” at Rice Stadium.

The President’s Lecture Series, which is sponsored by the Office of the President and supported by the J. Newton Rayzor Lecture Fund, was created to enrich the intellectual life of the Houston community by bringing to the Rice campus “celebrities of substance,” speakers of both high intellectual distinction and broad public appeal.

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.