Guest Columns

MARKS: HE WAS A TRUE AMERICAN HERO

April 13 brings back fond memories of Apollo astronaut Jack Swigert

GUEST COLUMNIST

April 13, 1970 — Apollo 13 — “Hey, we’ve got a problem here.”

Thus, calmly, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert gave the first intimation to a world, then bored by 12 previously successful “routine” Apollo flights, that there might be serious trouble for Flight 13 — 200,00 miles above earth.

As the men in Apollo 13 experienced what no man before or since has undergone, millions of people around the world suddenly began to follow their unfolding drama.

Instead of heading for a moon landing, astronauts Swigert, Lovell and Haiser, after an oxygen tank explosion, found themselves in danger of dying as no one had before. They were on the brink of hurtling for eternity into outer space.

Public prayers for their safety were said by Pope Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica and by rabbis in Jerusalem and at the Wailing Wall. Even cynical traders on the floor of Chicago’s Board of Trade stopped for a moment of prayer.

Three days later the decision was made, Swigert swung their spacecraft into the one maneuver that could save them. His path hurled them behind the dark side of the moon, which allowed them no margin for human or scientific error.

Fortunately, Swigert was able to use his engineering and scientific skill to successfully navigate and fly the craft at the required 164 miles above the moon’s surface. This route kept them on course and allowed them to emerge safely — on the earth’s side of our moon.

The press called Swigert “a truly authentic hero.”

November 1982 — election night — 12 years later: I was one of Swigert’s friends privileged to help him in his campaign for election to Congress. That night I knew he was both winning and losing. Yes, he won the election to become the first person to represent Colorado’s 6th Congressional District in Washington, D.C., but he was losing his fight against cancer.

December 17, 1982 — 30 years ago — Jack Swigert died. Today, Easter Sunday, I read and reread one of the last letters I received from him. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “Easter and Christmas is a time to reflect…” And now after much “reflection,” I’d like to share with you two incidents that occurred during Jack’s campaign for Congress.

I remember that on the campaign trail, Swigert never mentioned his astronaut experiences. Rather, he wanted to discuss only the issues that worried the people living in the 6th.

But, I recall one afternoon, while Swigert was discussing Social Security problems before a group of senior citizens at the Del Mar Senior Center in Aurora, he reacted with disbelief to an 85-year-old woman’s statement: “Cut the bull, young fella. Tell us what it was like up at the moon.”

For the next half hour, those seniors sat like school children while he shared with them his experience in space.

Swigert died only seven days before he was to be sworn in as a congressman and on “reflection,” I reread what Jack once again wrote: “I believe that God measures your life. He puts you on earth, gives you talents and certain opportunities and I think you’re going to be called to account for those opportunities. Did you use them to good advantage or bad?”

Well Swigert, George Will, who was a famous columnist, best answered your question when he wrote that your gift to this country was that “you gave examples of bravery when you didn’t die and when you did.”

He also pointed out in that same article after your death: “In an era of non-heroic literature, nations need conspicuous real heroes, this nation just lost one.”

We in Colorado can certainly be especially proud of this man who was born in Colorado, graduated from East High School, an ex-University of Colorado football hero, test and fighter pilot, astronaut and congressman.

Swigert served us well. He left us a model by which citizens in America can measure statesmanship, integrity, indomitable will, gentle humor and brilliance. He created our image of what a congressman ought to be.

Former Gov. Dick Lamm wrote that Jack Swigert “provided a genuine home-grown hero for a whole generation of Colorado kids.”

To his friends, Jack was and still is Colorado and America.

Mort Marks is an Arapahoe County Republican activist who worked on Jack Swigert’s congressional campaign.