Jerry C. Elliott watched the movie "Apollo 13," the
Tom Hanks film about the 1970 aborted journey to the moon, his
palms started to sweat.
was so real," Elliott said.
a physicist with NASA, was in a position to know just how true to
life the movie was.
the lead retrofire officer at Mission Control in Houston, he played
a major role in the real drama of bringing three American astronauts
safety back to Earth after an onboard explosion.
of Osage-Cherokee descent, also bears the name High Eagle, a name
well suited to his out-of-this-world career. He grew up in Oklahoma
and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1966 with a bachelor's
degree in physics.
was not an academic pursuit for him. Instead, it was a natural extension
of his curiosity of the world around him and one way to become closer
study it is one of the most sacred things you can do," he said.
Indians always had a vast understanding of physics, he said. Their
knowledge of passive solar energy led to building homes into the
sides of cliffs. Their knowledge of "arrow-dynamics" perfected
the accuracy of bows and arrows.
right out of college, Elliott was a flight controller in the Gemini
program and went on to work on all of the Apollo missions and the
Skylab, space station and space-shuttle programs.
April 11, 1970, at 1:13 p.m. Houston time (13:13 military time),
the Apollo 13 mission was launched to send the third astronaut crew
to land on the moon.
went well until the third day of the journey as the astronauts approached
April 13, Elliott was seated at his number 13 console in Mission
Control when an explosion ripped through a quarter of Apollo 13's
service module, badly damaging the spacecraft's systems.
accident didn't just cancel the planned moon landing, it threatened
to kill the astronauts by oxygen deprivation, carbon-dioxide poisoning
around the clock for three days, the Houston team made certain none
of those things happened.
was Elliott's job to refigure the crippled spacecraft's trajectory
so it would loop around the moon and land on Earth safely.
had to juggle a multitude of variables to come up with the right
calculations, not the least significant of which was the correct
angle to enter the Earth's atmosphere. Too shallow, and the spacecraft
would skip across it like a rock on a pond. Too deep, and the astronauts
would burn up.
the time, there were no such things as PCs or digital technology.
Elliott used a mammoth IBM 360 computer that nearly crashed during
plan for a new route home for Apollo 13 worked, and the astronauts
his efforts, Elliott was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government.
though Apollo 13 happened nearly 34 years ago, it still can teach
valuable lessons about how to turn failure into success.
one working on the Apollo 13 mission ever considered the possibility
of not getting the three astronauts back alive.
tenacity, will and superhuman endurance, they were successful, he
didn't wait for something to happen. We made it happen," he