HUTCHINSON — It had been 40 years to the day since Fred Haise had seen the Apollo 13 space capsule. The last time was "when I crawled out of it in the South Pacific," said Haise, one of the three astronauts who survived the explosion in space that scuttled the nation's third planned moon landing and nearly killed the crew.
"Well, it looks pretty familiar; it looks pretty beat up, though," Haise said as he looked over the capsule with his onetime mission commander, astronaut James Lovell.
"You haven't seen this since it was on the aircraft carrier, have you?" Lovell said.
"I didn't see it on the aircraft carrier," said Haise, who spent most of the historic mission sick with fever from a urinary infection. "I went to bed."
Haise and Lovell, along with several other astronauts and members of the Apollo 13 ground crew, gathered at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in an event marking the 40th anniversary of the flight that many still consider NASA's finest hour.
The third member of Apollo 13's crew, Jack Swigert, survived the mission but not bone cancer, which claimed his life in 1982.
"I wish he was here to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13," Lovell said.
The space capsule Odyssey splashed down safely on April 17, 1970.
That was the happy ending of a six-day ordeal for the astronauts, the ground crew that worked around the clock to figure out how to get the damaged craft home, and an anxious nation that was glued to televisions hoping and praying for a safe return.
Haise expressed pride in the effort that got him and his crewmates home.
"It's something we did a long time ago that was pretty hard to do, the whole program in fact, but got done — got done by Americans who worked hard and did a good job as a team," he said.
Earlier Saturday, nine members of the ground team gathered to reminisce about the mission in a panel discussion attended by about 500 people at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
Most could tell the story by heart, having either watched it unfold on live TV or learned about it through director Ron Howard's 1995 film "Apollo 13."
After the explosion two days into the flight, the crew was forced to loop their damaged ship around the moon and return to Earth while ground personnel scrambled to re-engineered the mission to overcome serious shortages of oxygen, power and heat.
They used the module that was supposed to land on the moon as a "lifeboat" and cobbled together carbon-dioxide scrubbers from cardboard and duct tape to keep the air fresh.
But there were a few things that home viewers couldn't really understand, the men who were there said.
For the astronauts, it was the numbing cold in the spaceship, which had been powered down to a minimal level to preserve its batteries. Lovell said the temperature dropped to the low 30s — about the same as a home refrigerator.
And although the networks broadcast hours of footage from Mission Control, it couldn't capture the smell of the room, said flight controller Ed Fendell.
With the team in full emergency mode, "nobody bathed and everybody smoked," Fendell recalled. "The smell was overwhelming. You opened the door and smoke would come out."
It was the smell of determination.
Jack Lousma, an astronaut who handled communications between the ground and the damaged spaceship, said he was "dumbfounded" when someone asked him later what if the astronauts hadn't made it.
"It never entered my mind," he said. "We were all positively focused on getting those guys back."
But while Saturday's event was a celebration, it also offered an impromptu referendum on President Obama's plans for future space exploration.
Eugene Kranz, Apollo 13's flight director, drew cheers when he said he thinks Obama "wrote the epitaph for manned space flight" by the United States in February when he announced plans to scrap the Constellation project.
Constellation was designed to use technology developed in the Apollo and space shuttle programs to return to the moon and use that as a jumping-off point for an eventual mission to Mars.
Last week, Obama unveiled a more sweeping goal of developing new technology to skip the planned moonbase and — with cooperation from international space programs and the fledgling private-spaceflight industry — go directly to near-Earth asteroids and on to Mars.
The Apollo veterans said Constellation would have given NASA the opportunity to learn more about how to live long-term in space before embarking on a lengthy Mars mission.
Haise and Lovell said they disagree with the president's plan, which they said doesn't contain the kind of solid blueprint and preparation it took to send men to the moon.
"I looked at what he plans on doing and then I listened to his speech... building a heavy-lift booster and going out to the asteroids and eventually going to Mars and all that, but there was no continuity to it, there was no substance to what he was saying," Lovell said.
He predicted that the Russians will essentially inherit the International Space Station because American astronauts won't have a way to get there.
"In the decades and decades that we have been sort of, you know, friendly antagonists in going into space, I think the Russians have finally won the space race," Lovell said.