Astronaut Who Helped Guide Apollo 13 Back To Earth Dies At 87
Apollo 16 astronauts (L-R) Charles M Duke, John W Young, and Thomas K Mattingly II take a break during a training exercise in preparation for the Lunar Landing mission, US, 6th February 1972. Duke is the Lunar Module pilot, Mattingly the Command Module pilot, and Young the Commander on the Flight scheduled to lift off April 16th.
Photo by UPI/Bettmann via Getty Images.

Thomas K. Mattingly, a NASA astronaut who helped guide Apollo 13 back to Earth after the spacecraft was damaged in space, died on October 31 at the age of 87. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced Mattingly’s death on Thursday, describing Mattingly as a hero and praising the astronaut’s long aeronautic career, which saw him play a pivotal role in several Apollo missions. 

“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,” Nelson said. 

In 1966, NASA chose Mattingly to be part of that year’s astronaut class after which he started working as part of the astronaut support crew and in the development of the Apollo spacesuit and backpack.

“His unparalleled skill as a pilot aided us when he took on the role of command module pilot for Apollo 16 and spacecraft commander for space shuttle missions STS-4 and STS 51-C. The commitment to innovation and resilience toward opposition made TK an excellent figure to embody our mission and our nation’s admiration,” Nelson said. 

Mattingly is best known for his role in 1970 in helping get the crew of Apollo 13 back to Earth after a service module oxygen tank on the ship ruptured causing the astronauts to lose access to electricity, water, and light 200,000 miles away from Earth. Mattingly had been set to travel on Apollo 13, but ended up being exposed to rubella so he was unable to go on the mission. He ended up playing a vital role from the ground.

“Perhaps his most dramatic role at NASA was after exposure to rubella just before the launch of Apollo 13. He stayed behind and provided key real-time decisions to successfully bring home the wounded spacecraft and the crew of Apollo 13 – NASA astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise,” Nelson said. 

In 1972, Mattingly would go on to be the command module pilot for the Apollo 16 mission where astronauts explored the moon’s Descartes Highlands. 


Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong in July 1969, praised Mattingly in a statement on X, calling him a friend.

“He was a great test pilot, a Navy veteran, a class act, and a heck of a good man. I’ll always remember him for his natural ability to handle an immense degree of responsibility under pressure without getting rattled – a true professional of the rarest kind. He will be truly missed. Rest in Peace, Ken,” Aldrin said.

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