Two astronauts and the flight director of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission marked the 45th anniversary of the flight at the Cradle of Aviation Museum Thursday night, reminiscing with former Grumman employees who worked on the lifesaving lunar module and bemoaning the state of the nation's space program.
The mission commander, James Lovell, fellow astronaut Fred Haise and flight director Gene Kranz -- whose exploits were recreated in the 1995 Ron Howard film, "Apollo 13" -- came to the East Garden City museum as guests of honor at a sold-out fundraising dinner for 660 guests.
Beforehand, Haise met with students from the museum's STEM Magnet Academy program and then the three chatted with former Grumman employees in front of the museum's lunar module that would have flown as Apollo 18 had the program not ended with Apollo 17.
Apollo 13, which blasted off April 11, 1970, was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo program and the third intended to land on the moon. The 10-day mission was cut short after 55 hours when the service module's oxygen system exploded. Lovell, Haise and fellow crewman John L. Swigert worked with Kranz, ground controllers, Grumman workers and other contractors to convert their lunar landing module into a lifeboat. The plan conserved electrical power, oxygen and water, allowing them to return to earth on April 17.
Lovell and Haise said they enjoyed Howard's version of the harrowing events to get the astronauts home safely despite the director's taking some liberties with the story.
As experienced test pilots used to pushing the envelope of flight, Lovell, 87, said he, Haise and Swigert, who died in 1982, were not afraid when the explosion occurred. But, he admitted, "We were a little apprehensive."
Lovell said he's not surprised about the continuing interest in Apollo 13 and the trio makes frequent public appearances to share their experiences. "It's quite a niche in the history of our space activities so people still want to hear about it and how mission control gathered around to try to figure out the best way for us to get home," said Lovell, who was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the film.
Haise lamented the diminished role of the U.S. space program in 2015 compared to the intense activity and funding of the 1960s.
"I'm like most space buffs who feel we're not doing enough fast enough," said Haise, 83. "I'd like to see a lot more technology money, development of new propulsion systems. I'd like to see us going back to the moon with some people who would stay for a while and build a colony like we did in Antarctica."
The current program is too diffuse with no clear direction, said Kranz, 82.
"I'd like to see them have a clear-cut program with a series of established missions because right now it seems like everything's a potpourri and nobody's really identified what we're going to do, why we're going to do it and when we're going to get there."
Lovell said there's much more to explore in space. "We've barely scratched the surface of the moon," he said.
Kenneth Maloney, 76, a Long Islander who worked for Grumman as a test manager on the lunar module project at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and now lives in Houston near his friend Haise, said he and his colleagues were "extra proud" of how their module saved the astronauts. "The work that these people did with the people in mission control and the engineers all over the United States and the world who got them back was NASA's finest hour."
Lovell praised the Grumman employees' contributions. Pointing to the lunar module, he said "that's the vehicle that got us home. We used it not like it was designed to be used. We used it as a transportation system and took it all the way back to the Earth and jettisoned it just before we hit the atmosphere. So we're very happy to be here and thank them again."