The epic of space conquest that captivated the world in the mid-20th century would have been impossible without the work of the likes of Glynn S. Lunney. From the NASA command center in Houston, the aerospace engineer was acclaimed, like the good commander in a battle, not only for knowing how to deploy his troops, but for returning them home healthy.
As in the most glossy exploits of war, Lunney, the agency’s chief of flight, managed to guide the first space missions to the moon, but also rescue the crew in distress of Apollo 13, in 1970. The space conductor, who he watched weapons and stars on the unfathomable battlefield of the cosmos, he died on March 19 in Clear Lake (Texas) at the age of 84, a victim of stomach cancer, without having to wait for posterity to go down in history.
He did it in his lifetime, in his early thirties, when after hearing the message “Houston, we have a problem” he led the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew after the spacecraft was rocked by an explosion aboard on its way to the moon. At the head of the NASA ground team, under immense pressure but without losing his smile, Lunney improvised a route to redirect the three astronauts – James Lovell, Fred Haise and John Swigert – to a placid splashdown in the Pacific. A challenge that was, in his words, “the best operation of my life, the one I could never have imagined.”
His name is also linked to the first landing on the moon, after guiding astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in July 1969. Lunney had made his debut a year earlier as the agency’s director of operations and space flights, where he joined after its founding. , in 1958. His work was key to developing the Apollo 11 flight procedures and allowing that pioneering journey, when the space race – today a megalomaniac or pecuniary diversion of magnates like Elon Musk – was an indissoluble part of the strategic doctrine of deterrence of the Cold War. The rivalry with the Soviet Union was also measured in space, and Lunney acted as master of ceremonies of operations measured to the millimeter, in vital risk and scientific scope, but also of political propaganda.
In July 1975 he directed the mission that allowed a spacecraft with three astronauts to dock with the Russian Soyuz, manned by two others. It was a milestone: the last mission of the Apollo program, and the first joint of two nations in space, the United States and the USSR, face-to-face rivals in the cosmos. During the 44 hours that both ships were docked, their crews carried out experiments, exchanged flags and gifts, and visited each other. The Cold War was warming up, and the rapprochement led to space shuttle missions to Mir and then to the International Space Station.
All these advances happened under the watchful eye of Lunney, a great behind-the-scenes operator of a spatial and strategic choreography. But no mission brought him so much fame as the rescue of the ship, a patriotic and inevitably cinematic feat, as the box office showed years later. Apolo 13, starring Tom Hanks.
Along with three other flight managers and a myriad of scientists and astronauts, Lunney set up a space highway to retrieve the three astronauts. “We built a quarter-million-mile space highway through which, for almost four days, we were able to return the crew home. To return them to planet Earth, people from all continents worked in support of these three endangered explorers. It was an inspiring feeling that once again reminded us of our common humanity, “Lunney later recounted in a documentary recorded by NASA to remember the epic. Paraphrasing Julio Cortázar and the title of one of his last books, that was his great legacy, the great trip of the autonauts down the cosmopath.
Subscribe here to the newsletter from EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the current situation of the region
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.