Oklahoma native shares Apollo 13 experience
Oklahoma native J.C. (Jerry) High Eagle Elliott shares his experiences at NASA, including his critical support of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, with attendees of an April 18 presentation at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. KIMBERLY DURMENT LOCKE/SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
LOS ANGELES – Oklahoma native J.C. (Jerry) High Eagle Elliott shared his experiences working at NASA, including his critical support of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, and his perspective on life as a Native American with attendees of a presentation April 18 at the California Science Center.
Elliott’s talk commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission.
Elliott said he was convinced early in life that he would land a man on the moon and enjoyed watching cartoons and TV programs focused on space and space exploration. He majored in physics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and became the first Native American to graduate from OU with a physics degree. From there, he began his 41-year career at NASA as a flight controller, which Elliott considers his destiny.
Elliott said his Cherokee and Osage heritage played a significant role in his physics degree and NASA career.
“I love physics because, more than anything else, it speaks truly to who I am as a Native American,” he said. “Natives have a unique way of seeing the world because they perceive all things as connected to one another. It’s a systems engineering view of life.”
He encouraged attendees to discover what’s inside of them in terms of interests, innate talents and skills.
“Life is about discovery. It’s about what’s inside you, and what you can do with it,” he said. “When I started at NASA, I can remember asking others there for technical journals and other materials that I could read to enhance my knowledge. One of my colleagues said to me, ‘we don’t read books, we write them.’”
It was then that Elliott began writing the first handbook on the Agena rocket.
It wasn’t long before he found himself working on the Gemini Project and continued on to the Apollo Program as an operations flight controller on console at Mission Control Center at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. And it would be the Apollo 13 project that would not only put astronauts James Lovell Jr., John Swigert and Fred Haise Jr. to the test, but the entire ground crew, including Elliott.
Elliott was lead retrofire officer for the Apollo 13 mission, which was to be a lunar landing mission. Due to a system failure, the mission was aborted on route to the moon when there was a loss of service module cryogenic oxygen and consequent loss of capability to generate electrical power, provide oxygen and produce water. The cause, he said, was the explosion of an oxygen tank that blew out one-quarter side of the service module, which housed and supplied all of the power, oxygen and propellant.
This resulted in a powering down of the command module, the place where the astronauts remained on the way to the moon. It was then that the lunar module was configured to supply the necessary power and other consumables for the crew to survive.
Elliott said to return the astronauts safely, a new return trajectory had to be calculated and that is where his education in physics, as well as his experience at NASA, came into play. Calculating that return trajectory was like threading a needle from 70 feet away, he said. “We had to be accurate.”
“Apollo 13 was a test of real leadership and how we took a potential tragedy and turned it into a success,” he said. “All of us had a conviction to ride Apollo 13 to the end. We never thought we couldn’t do it.’
Elliot also emphasized the importance of diversity in identifying solutions to issues wherever they may occur.
“We all think differently and diversity of thought is important,” he said. “A lot of how we think, how we approach challenges, is based on our culture, our religion, our education. My perspective as a Native American is different from others who are not Native American. We have a connection with all of life and are part of the sacred circle of life. We are no greater or lesser than the other creatures on Earth,” he said.
Elliott attributed his sense of dedication to the Apollo 13 mission to the determined spirit of his ancestors.
“The Cherokee people had the tenacity to persevere on the Trail of Tears and through other adversities,” he said. “I told myself then and still tell myself now, I have their blood and I can do this.”
He recounted his experience meeting Oscar Award-winning actor Tom Hanks, who starred in the “Apollo 13” movie and how he and others on that mission were asked for their comments about the movie.
“Apollo 13 was a marvelous achievement among seemingly unsurmountable odds,” Elliott said.
He later served as staff engineer on the Apollo/Soyuz Program, the world’s first joint Russian-American space mission and completed his lengthy NASA career supporting the Space Shuttle Program.
The former NASA scientist, engineer and project manager has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard M. Nixon for his Apollo 13role. Other awards include the Cherokee Medal of Honor and the Navajo Medal of Honor.