Sunday, February 10, 2013

A space-themed dinner and a bill for $312,421.24

In 1999, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell and his family opened a steakhouse in the northern suburbs of Chicago: Lovells of Lake Forest. I'd been wanting to try it out since reading Elizabeth Howell's review over at Universe Today a few months ago. So the boyfriend and I went a few weeks ago to celebrate my birthday, and it was a space nerd's dream come true.

Gene Kranz, lead flight director during Apollo 13, chows down.
Source: Vintage Space.

The restaurant is full of Apollo and Gemini memorabilia, including a giant mural called Steeds of Apollo, painted by Luman Winter in 1969 for the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. The hotel auctioned the painting off when remodeling a few decades later. The Lovells wanted to buy it, but were outbid. Turns out that a family friend, Tom Hanks (a.k.a., Commander Lovell in Apollo 13!) had put in the winning bid, to give the mural to them as a present! Now, it hangs behind the bar in the restaurant.

The Steeds of Apollo, at Lovells of Lake Forest.

Our meal was delicious- I had pasta and a Greek salad; the boyfriend had a rack of lamb. For dessert I ate cheesecake and he had crème brûlée. Oh, and I had a "heatshield martini" - basically a Bloody Mary, but with an outer space themed name!

After we ate, we wandered around looking at the photos and NASA-themed trinkets. The maître d' told us that a few weeks before we visited, Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 and thus the last man on the moon, came to Lovells for dinner. (We were wondering- do Apollo astronauts eat for free at Lovells?) Cernan was checking out the memorabilia and came across this photo:

The Earth from Apollo 17, at Lovells of Lake Forest.

Cernan told the restaurant staff that something was wrong with the picture. Can you see the mistake he found? The photo I took is a little washed out, but if you look closely at the landmass beneath the clouds, you'll see that Africa is upside down. Well, technically there isn't really an upside down or right side up for our planet, but according to Cernan, Africa was facing the other way when he took the photo, and Lovell hung his photo upside down. This is what the not washed-out, right side up version of the same photo looks like:

The Earth from Space, viewed by the Apollo 17 crew.
Source: MSNBC.

The story of the Apollo 13 mission is an amazing story, perhaps humanity's best true space adventure story so far. I loved Jim Lovell's book (Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13) and I loved the Tom Hanks movie. Between those sources and a trip to Lovells of Lake Forest, I figured I'd exhausted the wealth of Apollo 13 trivia available to me. But then today I came across the story of the Apollo 13 tow truck prank...

Commander Lovell reads about his safe return, after the fact.
Source: Wikipedia.

The tow truck prank is a goofy footnote to Apollo 13's amazing story. Moon-bound Apollo spacecraft were comprised of three main parts: service, command, and lunar modules. A little over two days into John Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise's trip to the Fra Maru highlands, an oxygen tank exploded in the spacecraft's service module, severely crippling it. This left the command module without adequate oxygen and power for the duration of the trip back to Earth. So, the three men  powered down the command module and defunct service module, slingshotting around the moon in the lunar module, with the command module and crippled service module attached.

Once they returned to Earth, Lovell, Swigert, and Haise jettisoned the lunar modules and service modules and descended in the command module. Effectively, the lunar module served as their lifeboat for the period of time between the explosion and when they re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. Without it, there would have been zero chance for a safe return to Earth.

The lunar module was so helpful because its systems (of course) have to be able to operate independently of the command module and service module. With some creative fixes stretching out resources meant for a shorter trip to the moon for two men, it had enough power and supplies to keep the three men pressurized, warm enough (they were still very chilly), and breathing during their voyage home.

A view of the damaged Apollo 13 service module.
The instrumentation on the right side shouldn't be visible: the explosion blew the panels off the side of the craft.
Source: Universe Today.

All of the Apollo lunar modules were built by a private contractor, Grumman Aerospace. The service modules and command modules were built by a different contractor, North American Aerospace. No doubt Grumman staff were very proud of the lunar module's critical role in rescuing the Apollo 13 crew... and following Apollo 13's safe landing, a few Grumman employees pulled a prank: invoicing North American for the cost of towing the command module and service module back to Earth!

Grumman's invoice.
Source: Sarah's Geek Blog.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have their ride break down won't be surprised to learn that Grumman charged North American for a few extras beyond the base towing rate:
  • 400,001 miles at a cost of $4.00 for the first mile and $1.00 for each additional mile, adding up to a total of $400,004. 
  • Jumping the command module's batteries prior to reentry: $4.05.
  • $10.00 per pound for 50 pounds lunar module oxygen: $500.00.
  • $8.00/night for 4 night stay by an unexpected guest, Fred Haises, who should have been orbiting the moon during the lunar module's trip to the surface: $32.00. (Note: the invoice lists a check-out time of noon on April 17th, 1970).
Generously, Grumman threw in a few freebies: no charge for use of the lunar module's water, no charge for baggage transfer between the command module and lunar module, and no gratuities. On top of that, a 20% "commercial discount" and an extra 2% discount for payment made in cash was offered.  No tax was added, since the whole project was arranged via government contracts. Grumman also did not charge extra for the costs associated with an expected lunar module trip to the moon: air conditioning, a radio, and a room with a view(!) 

The total cost, with discounts, added up to $312,421.24.

Recovering the Apollo 13 command module (at no extra cost to North American Rockwell!)
Source: Wired.

The staff of Grumman's Flight Control Integration Lab was responsible for writing up the invoice. Their joke was leaked by Sam Greenberg, a Grumman employee who was fired for his trouble... and then personally reinstated a couple hours later by Grumman's president, Lou Evans. North American responded to the prank with a press conference. They demanded payment from Grumman for the command module and service module's role in towing lunar modules to the moon during Apollo 10, 11, and 12!

The Apollo 13's command module splashes down.
Source: Wikipedia.

Sources: Lovells of Lake Forest;; Sarah's Geek Blog; Wikipedia.

Note: Speaking of Gene Kranz and Apollo 13, I finished Kranz's autobiography, Failure is not an Option, a few weeks ago. I highly recommend it! He's got the inside scoop on decades worth of NASA missions, and he's a friendly and thorough narrator.


  1. Sounds like a fun dinner! I appreciated the additional explanation behind Apollo 13 as well.

  2. this is really awesome post. it looks like memorable dinner. here am also writing post please see this universe today.