Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Houston, we don’t have a problem with Captain Lovell

James Lovell

Some people only know of Commander James Lovell because he was played by Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13. Others only know of Tom Hanks because he played Commander James Lovell. Either way, the real James Lovell was in Toronto last Sunday to speak at Convocation Hall. With him was John Bahcall, one of the prime movers for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Both men appeared under the auspices of the Global Knowledge Foundation, a University of Toronto group which, according to its mission statement, “showcases the world’s best keynote and workshop speakers.” If this seems a little vague, there’s a good reason for it. Last year (their first in operation), they snagged Stephen Hawking as speaker, a surprise coup that has seen them scrambling to catch up to their own reputation ever since. Nor have they done a bad job of it, although people still tend to get their initials wrong. “Even my father can’t keep it straight,” mourns Shahid Amed, Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer.

This year’s speakers didn’t draw the same sell-out crowd that Hawking did, but between 700 to 800 people showed up to hear Bahcall reveal secrets of the Hubble Telescope, and Lovell tell of his near demise two hundred thousand miles from home. (Face it, that’s a story you can dine out on for easily a quarter of a century or more.)

John Bahcall was the first speaker, presenting a series of photos from the Hubble, many of which had never been seen by the public before. One, with the catchy name of “Planetary Nebula NGC 7027,” is a picture of what our own sun will look like millions of years from now — a gaseous cloud with mysterious filaments streaming from it. Another, of the 1987 supernova, shows strange rings that by all rights shouldn’t be there, but stubbornly refuse to go away.

Following Bahcall, James Lovell took the stage. Lovell has the timing and instincts of the born raconteur. Moments after beginning to speak he was interrupted by a loud electrical explosion from his microphone. “Do we have a problem again?” he dead-panned. Unlike many other space commentators, Lovell does not believe tha the race to get a man on the moon was a mistake. “When JFK said that we would put a man on the oon by the end of the decade, did anyone hear him say anything about scientific research?” he asked the crowd. “No, you did not. It was a technological challenge to show the world that we could do it. The research ame later.” Although this goes against the conventional wisdom of writers like James P. Hogan, it is consistent with history. The attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope was not motivated by a desire to study marine life off the east coast of Africa, Columbus’ voyage to the new world had nothing to do with the urge to “seek out and discover new life, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and even Captain Cook didn’t set out on his scientific tour of the world until Magellan and Drake had already done it for purely political reasons.

Before the lecture, in an interview with The Independent, Captain Lovell talked about some of the effects of the space race on Russian technology. “The thing about the Russians was that they would never improve anything unless they had to,” he said. As an example he pointed to a high altitude craft, the MIG 25, they had developed in response to experimental work being done by the States. During a test flight, the pilot defected, allowing our own scientists a close-up look. “You know what they found?” Lovell asked. “The engines were amazing pieces of work — but the radar had vacuum tubes! They had been forced to improve the thrust in order to compete with us, but they figured the radar was good enough, and so they never thought to change it.”

Following the lectures, both Bahcall and Lovell were presented with paintings of fish by local artists. No explanation was offered, and both men looked politely puzzled. I don’t know what Bahcall may do with his, but Lovell at least co-owns a restaurant with his son in Illinois, and one of the house specialties is fish — so maybe he can hang it by the coat check.

In fact, if you ever get down to Lake Forest, drop into Lovell’s Lake Forest Inn and look around. Drop me a line. I’d be interested to know.

Originally published in What’s On Queen?, 2000

Notable Interviews

To the right are a few of the noteworthy interviews I've conducted.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy

Astronaut James Lovell

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