Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) students from around the state gathered in the ANSEP Building on Friday, Jan. 31, to welcome Capt. James Lovell. Ushered in by Tsimshian dancers and drummers, Lovell was greeted with a standing ovation as he worked his way toward the center of the student-filled room to speak. Etched onto the wooden floor beside him where he fielded questions were the footprints of his NASA colleague, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who visited students last year.
“I want to emphasize the importance of a positive attitude,” he said, telling students to be glass-half-full thinkers.
“It saved my life a couple times,” he continued.
Lovell is perhaps best known as the astronaut who helped ensure the safe return of Apollo 13 after an in-flight oxygen tank explosion in April 1970. Slated for a moon landing, the crew had to instead focus their energies on survival, using the lunar module as a lifeboat.
“I know you really were expecting Tom Hanks,” he said in reference to the Apollo 13 film casting. “Sorry you’re stuck with the real guy.” A wave of laughter went around the room.
Students plied him with questions about being part of the space program and traveling in zero gravity.
“Space is the perfect mattress,” he said. In his first Gemini mission, he said, the astronauts were working around the clock and became accustomed to power napping at the controls whenever they felt sleepy, folding their hands and nodding off where they were floating.
Later a student asked Lovell if he’d been pleased with Tom Hanks’s portrayal of him in the Ron Howard film based on the book he co-authored. He responded with an anecdote about meeting Tom Hanks at Johnson Space Center (the home base on the receiving end of his “Houston, we’ve had a problem” transmission) and inviting him back to his home outside Austin for a few days.
Lovell met Hanks at the airport in his small plane to fly him back to his home.
“He looked a little worried,” Lovell said with a grin. “I wanted to give him a little test.”
What should have rightfully been a 15-minute flight turned into an hour-and-half thrill ride. Hanks passed.
Later they went on a night flight in the plane so Lovell could show Hanks what it was like to navigate by the stars.
“I pulled a lunar module cardboard cutout from the back seat of the plane and put it in the window and had him take the controls to see what it felt like,” Lovell said.
Generous with his time and answers, Lovell was also eager to explain to ANSEP students just what it felt like to become an astronaut and venture into space on his two Gemini and two Apollo missions.
Herb Schroeder, vice provost and founder of ANSEP, was pleased to host Lovell at the lunch event and later at the annual ANSEP celebration dinner at the Dena’ina Center.
“It’s good for our students to meet guys like Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin to see that they’re real people,” he said. “They’re legendary, but they’re also real guys.”
After fielding his final question at the lunch event, two students approached Lovell with Sharpies to trace his footprints on the floor beside Aldrin’s. A reminder for ANSEP students working in the building’s study space that they’d crossed paths with these trail-blazing men who’d taken America to new pinnacles.
ANSEP seniors Mike Ulroan and Forest Rose Walker later spoke at the ANSEP Celebration & Extravaganza that night in front of a crowd of 1,200.
“My name is Mike Ulroan and I’m from Chevak. This spring, I’ll be the first civil engineering graduate from my village,” said Ulroan.
“Thank you for making this possible,” said Walker to the roomful of donors and supporters who were being honored for their work in helping ANSEP students achieve success in STEM fields from 5th grade through doctoral studies.
Like Ulroan, Walker, who is from Buckland, is set to graduate in just a few months and will be the first civil engineering graduate from her village.
“It makes me proud to be one of the first of something,” she said.
Watching the faces of the students throughout the banquet hall, it’s clear that they also understand the purpose of their famous speaker’s visit.
Emblazoned on the screens above the crowd at the Dena’ina Center were these words: “Failure is not an option.” Words attributed to the Apollo 13 flight director.
After detailing his Apollo 13 flight to the crowd at the banquet, Lovell emphasized the point he felt was relevant to ANSEP students and supporters: “Teamwork is what got us home.”
ANSEP started in 1995 as a program to empower Alaska Native students to succeed in science and engineering professions. Today, there are 1,250 middle school, high school, university students and alumni. In 2013 ANSEP was recognized by Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with a Top 25 Innovations in American Government Award. Students were awarded more than $800,000 in scholarships last year through ANSEP.