As the wife of one of the first three astronauts to fly to and around the moon, Marilyn Lovell experienced what she called “exciting days” in the early days of the nation’s space program.
Lovell’s husband, Jim, was the command module pilot of Apollo 8, which in 1968 orbited the moon. He then commanded the Apollo 13 lunar mission 16 months later, which due to a faulty oxygen tank had to abort a moon landing.
The Apollo 13 mission became the subject of a book and then a 1995 film adaptation, with actress Kathleen Quinlan starring as Marilyn Lovell.
“Those were exciting, marvelous times in our lives,” Lovell told the Tribune in 1994 when reflecting on those years. “Yes, there were some difficult, anxious times, but I wouldn’t want to trade those exciting days. And I always had faith in the (space) program.”
Lovell, 93, died of natural causes Aug. 27 at her home at the Lake Forest Place retirement community in Lake Forest, said her son, Jeff. She was longtime Lake Forest resident.
Born Marilyn Lillie Gerlach in Milwaukee, Lovell graduated from the now-shuttered Juneau High School, where she met her future husband.
In 2010, Lovell recounted to the Tribune how she saw firsthand her husband’s interest in astronomy, physics and engineering. That included sitting with her future mother-in-law on the porch of their home, watching Jim Lovell try to set off homemade rockets on a nearby property.
“We would both say, ‘He’s crazy, this is insane,’ ” Lovell said, laughing. “But, he just kept at it.”
She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and worked part time in a department store, her son said, then married Jim Lovell in 1952 after his graduation from the Naval Academy.
Jim Lovell began a career as a naval aviator, and they lived in Pensacola, Florida, Northern California and Virginia Beach, Virginia. In 1962, Jim Lovell was selected to be part of NASA’s second group of astronauts.
Over the next several years, astronauts underwent rigorous training. Jim Lovell piloted the Gemini 7 space mission in 1965 and he served as command pilot of the Gemini 12 mission in November 1966.
From the space center’s mission control room in Houston, Marilyn Lovell watched her husband and other crew members of the Gemini 12 maneuver their spacecraft with a satellite companion and track the space capsule’s progress on a large electronic map of the world.
“It was fascinating,” Lovell told The Associated Press, referring to a tether maneuver in which the capsule decoupled from a satellite companion and flew in formation with it. “We were fortunate to be there during a very important experiment.”
In 1968, Lovell was the only astronaut’s wife to watch the launch of the Apollo 8 in person from Cape Kennedy, Florida.
“My feelings at liftoff were indescribable,” she said in an AP article that appeared in the Tribune in December 1968. “You can’t express how you feel when you see a rocket that long take off, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was something I’ll never forget.”
Apollo 8 traveled around the moon, making Jim Lovell and his two crewmates the first people to see the dark side of the moon. Jim Lovell decided to name a small, triangular lunar mountain Mount Marilyn after his wife.
Marilyn Lovell and the other two wives of the Apollo 8 crew visited Chicago in January 1969, meeting with Gov. Richard Ogilvie and Mayor Richard J. Daley.
In April 1970, Jim Lovell made clear that the Apollo 13 lunar mission would be his last. During the probe, the failure of the oxygen tank meant an aborted mission, a canceled lunar landing and a frenetic and desperate but ultimately successful effort to bring the crew home alive.
A nervous nation watched for four days until the spacecraft splashed down safely in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970. Marilyn Lovell watched the splashdown from the family’s home in Houston. The crew soon was flown to Hawaii to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Marilyn Lovell called the waiting period for her husband’s return a “nightmare.”
“I never experienced anything like this before, and I never care to experience it again,” she told the Tribune’s Sara Jane Goodyear in 1970.
Jim Lovell served in the Navy until resigning as a captain in 1973, and the family remained in Houston for several years afterward, as Jim Lovell held several corporate jobs. When Centel Corp. purchased one of his employers in 1980, the family relocated to Lake Forest.
Marilyn and Jim Lovell then divided their time between Lake Forest and a place in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.
Marilyn Lovell gave a glowing review of “Apollo 13″ upon its release in 1995.
“I’m very pleased with Tom (Hanks)’ portrayal of Jim,” she told the Tribune in 1995. “And Kathleen Quinlan, who played me, also did an excellent job. Her performance in the movie made me relive the entire emotional experience.”
The following year, Lovell told the Tribune that she was “absolutely ecstatic” that Quinlan was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
“The emotions I felt 25 years ago I could feel through Kathleen’s performance,” she said.
In 1998, HBO aired a docudrama miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon,” which dramatized the toll that publicity took on the wives of early astronauts. In one episode titled “The Original Wives Club,” actress Elizabeth Perkins portrayed Marilyn Lovell.
In addition to her husband and son, Lovell is survived by two daughters Barbara Harrison and Susan; another son James III; 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, 700 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
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