The Homecoming

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the superstitious, the launch of Apollo 13 at 13 minutes past the 13th hour on April 11,1970, was unsettling enough. Then, two days into NASA's third scheduled moon-landing mission, an explosion crippled the spacecraft commanded by Navy pilot James Lovell, then 44, and his crew, Fred Haise, 36, and Jack Swigert, 38. The fight for survival that followed, vividly dramatized in Ron Howard's current hit movie, Apollo 13, had a profound impact on each of the astronauts, none of whom ever got another chance to fly to the moon. "It changed me in a major way," Lovell said. "Hive my life one day at a time. Nothing rattles me. I could be dead. Why should anything bother me now?"

Regrets over never touching down on the moon

From the backyard of his four-bedroom brick home in Titusville, Fla., Haise, now 61, enjoys a catbird perch for viewing space shuttles as they lift off from the nearby Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. "I watch the launches," he says. "But I'm on the other side of the fence now."

Thanks to Apollo 13, Haise is reliving the perilous adventure that began at the same launch site 25 years ago. "They added some emotional drama to the film," he says. "I guess we weren't interesting enough." Or profane enough. "I went over all the air-to-ground transcripts. We never said a curse word for the entire flight." Yet he isn't offended by the film's off-color dialogue. "None of us were so pure that we wouldn't have cursed," he says. "We just didn't."

A Mississippi-born aeronautical engineer who began his career as a NASA test pilot in 1959, Haise retired his wings in 1979 after commanding five test flights of the space shuttle Enterprise. That same year he married his current wife, Patt, 55, a former NASA secretary. (His first marriage, to Mary Grant, mother of his four children, ended in 1978.) Now a division president at Northrop Grumman Corp., Haise says his only regret is that he never walked on the moon. "I was just sick to my stomach with disappointment," he says. Standing now in his backyard, Haise knows how close he and his crewmates came to oblivion. "We could still be setting records for time in space to this day," he says.

Two lunar orbits leave him "twice a bridesmaid"

Lovell's laconic radio message that there was "a problem" aboard Apollo 13 was one of the most memorable understatements of the space age. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Lovell, 66, finally filled in the details in Lost Moon, his gripping 1994 chronicle upon which the movie is based. Written with magazine writer Jeffrey Kluger, 40, the book was conceived by the three astronauts right after they splashed down in the Pacific on April 17,1970. "But we all went our separate ways and never got around to it," says Lovell, who eventually worked from an outline written by Swigert before his death in l982, consulting Haise frequently during the two years he researched the book. "I felt an obligation to tell the entire story," he says.

A space buff who built model rockets during his Wisconsin childhood and who had orbited the moon in Apollo 8 as a prelude to the first lunar landing, Lovell never achieved his dream of walking on the lunar surface. At the urging of his wife, Marilyn, who felt he would be pressing his luck by trying a third moon shot, he left the space program in 1973 and ran a telephone-equipment business until retiring in 1991. Today he does his flying in a tan Baron jet that he and Marilyn use to commute between homes in Lake Forest, Ill., and Horseshoe Bay, Texas, near Austin, and to visit their four children: daughter Barbara, the Beatles-obsessed teenager in the movie, now 41 and a housewife in San Antonio; Susan, 36, also a San Antonio housewife; son James Jr., 39, a chef in Chicago, and Jeff, 29, a pharmaceutical salesman in Corpus Christi, Texas. Lovell, who served as a technical adviser on the film, finds Apollo 13 "very authentic." And Marilyn says the "sense of foreboding" she felt when her wedding ring slipped down the shower drain was accurately portrayed in the movie. Though in real life she retrieved the ring, her fears for her husband's safety lingered long after his return. "I had trouble every time he went out the door, thinking I'd never see him again," she says. "It took a long time to get over that."

A rocky future awaited him on Earth

Back in his astronaut days, the fun-loving Swigert equipped his Houston bachelor pad with a built-in draft-beer spigot and a fur-covered recliner for impromptu parties. But after he left the space program to serve as executive director of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology from 1973 to 1977, the bad luck that dogged Apollo 13 seemed to follow. A Denver ophthalmologist's son who served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, Swigert lost a Republican primary race for a Colorado U.S. Senate seat in 1978. Then in 1982, he won a congressional seat in a landslide after announcing that he had bone-marrow cancer, but he died from the disease at age 51, just a week before he would have been sworn in. On his deathbed, Swigert reportedly compared his battle with cancer to his struggle to survive in space. Says his sister, Virginia Swigert, 58: "He had every belief he would beat the cancer too."

CINDY DAMPIER in Miami, BONNIE BELL in Lake Forest and VICKIE BANE in Denver

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