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Astronaut Ken Mattingly, who flew to the moon on Apollo 16, has died at 87

Retired astronaut Ken Mattingly has died. He's pictured (center) with crewmates Jim Lovell (left) and Fred Haise (right) at a news conference about a mission he ended up missing, the ill-fated Apollo 13.
Ed Kolenovsky
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AP
Retired astronaut Ken Mattingly has died. He's pictured (center) with crewmates Jim Lovell (left) and Fred Haise (right) at a news conference about a mission he ended up missing, the ill-fated Apollo 13.

Astronaut Ken "T.K." Mattingly has died. He circled the moon as command module pilot on Apollo 16 and later flew the space shuttle. But he's probably best known for the mission he didn't get to fly: the ill-fated Apollo 13. He died Tuesday, Oct. 31 and NASA announced his death Thursday in a news release. Mattingly was 87.

"We lost one of our country's heroes on Oct. 31. NASA astronaut TK Mattingly was key to the success of our Apollo Program, and his shining personality will ensure he is remembered throughout history," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Mattingly loved technical things. He was aeronautical engineer who flew Navy jets off aircraft carriers. NASA selected him to be an astronaut in 1966 and three of the Apollo missions he was involved in were some of the most important.

He was a member of the support crews for Apollo 8 (first to go to the moon) and 11 (first lunar landing) and Apollo 13 was to be his first trip to space. But he was removed from flight status days before launch because he'd been exposed to German measles. "Was I disappointed? Oh you bet!" he recalled in 2017, speaking at Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa. "There has never been anything in Shakespeare or any other publication that could throw a fit or feel sorry for yourself like I did."

As the Apollo 13 spacecraft was approaching the moon, an explosion crippled it. Controllers on Earth worked for days to solve one problem after another to get the crew back home. Despite the well-known Hollywood movie portrayal of his role in helping to solve those problems — in an NPR interview, Mattingly downplayed his own efforts, "I didn't play any role. I was the observer. The people that played roles and in bringing that stuff together deserve a lot of credit."

Retired astronaut Ken Mattingly speaking at West Des Moines, Iowa, Community College in 2017. Mattingly flew on several missions but missed Apollo 13 because he'd been exposed to German measles.
/ John Pemble/Iowa Public Radio
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John Pemble/Iowa Public Radio
Retired astronaut Ken Mattingly speaking at West Des Moines, Iowa, Community College in 2017. Mattingly flew on several missions but missed Apollo 13 because he'd been exposed to German measles.

But Mattingly attended many of the emergency meetings — offering advice and giving controllers ideas how to save electrical power in the ailing spaceship.

Mattingly got his chance to fly to the moon on Apollo 16. As John Young and Charlie Duke walked on the lunar surface in 1972, he orbited in the command module conducting scientific experiments, recording observations and preparing for the trip home.

After Apollo, he stayed on with NASA, helping get the shuttle program off the ground and commanding two missions. It was this part of his time with the space agency that made him most proud. "For me it was the opportunity of a lifetime in my career to be able to be with a project from go-ahead to turning it over as an operational product," he said.

He retired from the space agency in 1985 and the next year from the Navy as a rear admiral. Later he began to question the high cost of human space exploration. He told NPR that robots are so good now, NASA needs to define questions that can only be answered by a human presence. "Would it be exciting? Oh sure it would," he said, "but how many billions of dollars are we going to spend on exciting things for one or two people to enjoy? And if it doesn't lead anywhere."

Mattingly said his opinions were not popular with his former colleagues at NASA but he never shied away from speaking his mind — even well into his 80s.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.