'Mission Moon' at Adler: Capt. Lovell helps tell human side of space race

Mission Moon is the human side of Apollo program, down to how astronauts handle bodily functions.

It is, perhaps, too easy to forget about the moon program and its decade-plus of sacrifices and successes. These days, private companies are providing space services, and the exploration talk is of Mars. The moon? Been there, stepped on that — and almost 50 years ago now.

But a new exhibition opening Saturday at the Adler Planetarium succeeds in making the quest to get to the moon once again fresh, even visceral.

"Mission Moon" reimagines the space museum's main-floor exhibition that also covered NASA's first manned forays beyond Earth's atmosphere, but it does so with a more modern look, many more interactive features and with a concerted emphasis on the emotional side of the story.

"We tried to tell more of the story of the people," said Sarah Cole, vice president of visitor experience, who guided the in-house team that made "Mission Moon."

Now there's a full wall portrait of the three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — who died in their capsule when fire broke out during a launch pad test in January 1967. Alongside the photo of them in spacesuits, peering as if toward a future, is Grissom's quotation about astronauts needing to be ready to die for the mission.

But the astronaut who is the cornerstone of the exhibit, as before, is Capt. James Lovell, now 87 and living in Lake Forest. Lovell is an Adler board member who went into space four times and flew to the moon twice without touching the lunar surface, most famously on the nearly doomed Apollo 13 mission.

The general admission exhibit tells the story of NASA's lunar efforts through Lovell's eyes, from a replica of the boyhood desk at which he hatched the dream of being an astronaut to Life magazine photographs of his family watching anxiously as the space agency struggled to try to save the Apollo 13 crew.

A photo from that episode, a close-up of the Lovell's then-4-year-old son Jeff listening to the "squawk box" that fed unfiltered Mission Control conversations into the family living room, is as powerful as the picture of the doomed Apollo 1 astronauts.

The boy, probably just old enough to understand it, is hearing whether his father will return. Adjacent to that picture is a replica of the squawk box delivering authentic audio.

Although he and his wife, Marilyn, were consulted heavily in the exhibition makeover, Lovell saw the finished product for the first time Thursday, at a preview.

As both tourist and tour guide, he delivered inside information about the artifacts, many of them from his personal collection, while also registering delight at their new settings.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, rounding a corner to see the viewing platform now built up around his Gemini 12 space capsule, brought to the Adler in 2006. "The big problem before was we got the Gemini 12, but it was on the floor," he said, so children couldn't easily see into it.

Now visitors are only a clear panel away from stepping into the metallic flying cone that was the last one before the Apollo program. "I hope that ejection seat still isn't loaded," said Lovell.

He also shared a personal detail about the failed Apollo 13 mission, which was to have been the veteran astronaut's chance to be on the moon.

"Even though I was frustrated for years that I did not land on the moon, I'm kind of glad now," he said, standing in front of a display that simulates the moon's surface and lets visitors stand in the faux footsteps of first moonwalker Neil Armstrong.

If Apollo 13 succeeded, it would have been simply one of seven moon landings. But the way it played out, Lovell said, there's a dramatic rescue, a book, the Ron Howard movie and mission commander Lovell's famous quote, reprinted here on a wall: "Houston, we've had a problem."

"Mission Moon" visitors can hear those rescue conversations. In another area, a simulated Mission Control console, they can punch up audio from other missions.

As a whole the exhibit is a reminder of the moon program's breakneck speed. President John F. Kennedy made a moon visit a national priority in 1961, and Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" came in July 1969. There were 10 manned Gemini missions in 1965 and 1966, even before the Apollo program began.

But again, although the exhibit provides such details, it was Marilyn Lovell's two hours with Adler's exhibit designers that steered them away from doing a more straightforward "space race" story, they said.

"She's like, 'That's been done, guys,'" said Annie Vedder, one of the exhibit developers.

So visitors to this show learn, for instance, that while he was orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Lovell had arranged for a fur coat to be delivered to his wife, signed, "With love from the Man on the Moon."

And they get answers to one of the most asked questions about space travel. Liquid waste matter was piped outside the spacecraft, expelled into the void. The other rested behind the pilots in a device like the one on exhibit marked "Fecal Collection Bag." That's how personal "Mission Moon" gets.

sajohnson@tribpub.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'Mission Moon'

When: Opens Saturday

Where: Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive

Tickets: Included in $12 general admission; 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org

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