The space race was on.
In 1966, NASA selected Jack Lousma out of more than 10,000 military pilots to do what America asked a select few to do – serve as an astronaut.
A 1959 University graduate, Lousma spent 17 years working for NASA from the Apollo moon missions to flying the space shuttle. Twice, the feeling of gravity gripped his back as mission control cast him into space.
Lousma is part of an illustrious tradition of University alums who served as astronauts. Three alumni on an all-University of Michigan Apollo 15 mission famously planted a Michigan flag on the moon – one of only two on the lunar surface, the other being the U.S. flag.
Now 69, Lousma wears a cowboy hat and says he was always just “a regular guy with a great opportunity.”
Being an astronaut is just a fond memory for this alum, who never planned on donning a space suit.
“I never ever set major goals for my life, to tell you the truth,” Lousma said. “I just always tried to find something I would enjoy.”
Eight University alumni were astronauts during the space race beginning in 1957, a time when the iconic profession was a military duty at its core. The caliber of men to shoulder this undertaking was mainly composed of elite pilots who had flown high-speed jets in the midst of the Cold War.
For Lousma, being an astronaut was in its truest form, a chance to advance his piloting career.
Perhaps an average man, Lousma never led an average life.
After years of training, Lousma blasted off into space with a Skylab mission in 1973.
On the windmill-shaped space station known as Skylab, Lousma looked out a window and saw a work of art that changed his outlook on life.
Freeways weaved between the cities dotting the terrain. Forests and deserts painted the landscape with green and brown. Gliding below were “great continents of color” on a revolving canvas made up of blue ocean.
At a distance of more than 250 miles from Earth’s surface, Lousma’s first flight into space unveiled a new geography of the planet. It was a naked Earth, like a massive globe, but one without boundaries dividing the countries.
“You realize the boundaries are placed by men,” Lousma said. “Wouldn’t it be ideal to work together without those boundaries?”
For two months, space treated Lousma with a kaleidoscopic view of the Earth as he conducted space experiments. Looking back, working as an astronaut was the most far-fetched thing he could have ever imagined himself doing.
“In my (youth), the word astronaut wasn’t even invented,” he said.
Lousma was born in 1936. At the time, interest in space travel mainly resided in the books of Jules Verne and in comics like Flash Gordon. Piloting airplanes seemed a more likely reality; his father had built bombers during World War II.
Lousma took an interest in planes at a young age, a fascination that followed him throughout his life.
Yet sometimes he read comics on space travel, thinking it might happen one day. His mother told him to forget about space travel.
“You are wasting your time. It’s never going to happen,” Lousma recalls his mother saying.
The onset of the Cold War, however, led America to steadily pull its way to the final frontier and declare space travel a national priority.
In tandem, another new career rose in demand as well: the jet pilot. With aerospace development intensifying and his interest in airplanes still lingered, Lousma switched to the field of aeronautical engineering during his freshman year in 1954, and by junior year he had joined the Marines. After he graduated in 1959, Lousma went to flight school, getting his wings as a marine attack squadron pilot.
It wasn’t until 1965 that a newspaper called his attention to space flight: NASA was seeking applicants for a new group of astronauts. Coupled with the possibility of career advancement, Lousma’s sense of duty to his country and the challenge pushed him to apply.
“I thought I probably will never make this. But I would kick myself if I never took the chance,” he said.
After numerous tests, in April 1966, NASA selected him as one of 30 new recruits to become an astronaut, and he began his training by assisting the Apollo missions. For seven years, Lousma sat on the astronaut bench, waiting for his flight.
The year before, all eyes were on another pair of University alumni who had made a historic leap in the space race.
James McDivitt and Edward White, both Air Force pilots and best friends, flew on Gemini 4 in 1965, the first American space flight to conduct a space walk.
Like with Lousma, being an astronaut mainly smacked of career opportunity, said McDivitt, who is now 76. And McDivitt didn’t really want any of it.
“I didn’t really want to be an astronaut. I liked my job (as an Air Force pilot),” McDivitt said. “But the Air Force had sent me to the University and I thought it would be appropriate to repay them for it.”
In 1962, NASA selected the two friends to become astronauts. McDivitt would later fly on Apollo 9 in 1969 and even turned down a future moon mission in favor of becoming a program manager for subsequent Apollo flights. Assuming a command role took precedence over space flight for McDivitt.
As for White, space flight claimed his life in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire.
Lousma was fully aware of the risks, having come face-to-face with them while working as a support crew member during the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight, which abandoned its mission to the moon after a serious malfunction.
He had trained hard to prepare himself for the dangers, but he could do nothing in the face of funding cuts and rescheduling after NASA canceled the final three Apollo moon missions, one of which Lousma was slated to fly on.
“I was very disappointed, but it was clear there wasn’t much we could do about that,” Lousma said. “We looked forward to a flight in the future.”
And NASA didn’t disappoint. For two months, Lousma and his crew conducted more than 300 medical experiments on board the recently launched Skylab space station.
Upon returning to the Earth with a loss in bone mass and weight due to lack of gravity in space, Lousma recalled a sense of professional satisfaction.
“We were alive and we accomplished our mission,” he added.
The astronaut today
Lousma later returned to space on a test flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1982, but left NASA in 1983 to pursue other challenges, like starting a few businesses and even running for a U.S. Senate seat in Michigan the next year.
Now semi-retired and living in Ann Arbor, Lousma says he doesn’t really have the urge to fly back into space. Aside from his age, the years of training and NASA’s tendency to cancel flights remind him of the obstacles to swift space travel. It’s a challenge he’s conquered and has no need to revisit.
But some of the thrill remains.
“If they were going to say I was going to fly to the space station with three months of training, I would do it,” he said.