‘Houston, we’ve got a problem’

Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, Jim Swigert and Jim Lovell. (NASA photo)

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 crisis, when the spacecraft was crippled in the middle of its planned trip to the moon. Forget a lunar landing and moonwalk; finding a way to get the three astronauts home safely was going to be a formidable enough challenge for the NASA engineers.

Houston control center during final 24 hours of Apollo 13 flight. (NASA photo)

A member of that space mission, Jack Swigert, was a Catholic. The predicament facing him and his crewmates held the nation and the world spellbound. Three-and-a-half days after Swigert issued his famously simple summation of the oxygen tank blast that crippled Apollo 13 — “Houston, we’ve got a problem” — NASA brought the crippled craft safely back to earth.

The rescue achieved a new popularity thanks to the 1995 movie “Apollo 13,” with Kevin Bacon playing Swigert.

One might think there would be nothing that could surpass such a dramatic point in someone’s life. And possibly so. Swigert made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1978. Four years later, he ran for a U.S. House seat in a newly created congressional district in Colorado and won, but he did not live to be seated. Two days after winning the Republican primary in September 1982, doctors found he had bone cancer.

Thinking they had found the cancer at an early stage, Swiger’s physician said at the time tht his chances of survival were “probably better than those for getting back from the moon in a broken spaceship.” Swigert  won the general election with 63 percent of the vote, squeezing in chemotherapy during full days on the campaign trail. That Dec. 19, he was airlifted to Washington for treatment, and the cancer was found to have spread to his lungs. He died eight days later.

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