Marilyn Lovell, who, as an object of fascination for the news media, the inspiration for movie and TV characters and a figure in history books, incarnated for many Americans the hardships and glamour of being an astronaut’s wife, died on Aug. 27 in Lake Forest, Ill. She was 93.
Her death was announced by the Wenban Funeral Home of Lake Forest.
Her husband, Jim Lovell, once the most experienced astronaut in the United States, was captain of perhaps the nation’s most dramatic spaceflight: Apollo 13. It was launched on April 11, 1970, with the goal of returning astronauts to the surface of the moon for the third time. Mr. Lovell and Fred Haise were the designated moon walkers; Jack Swigert was supposed to remain in orbit.
Two days after takeoff, however, an oxygen tank exploded, and the command module, Odyssey, began losing power. “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Mr. Lovell reported (a statement that has endured in the retelling as “Houston, we have a problem.”)
The crew aborted the plan for the moon landing and took refuge in the lunar module, Aquarius, using it for the journey back to Earth.
The crisis captivated the world, with Ms. Lovell in a central role as the wife and mother of four watching the television news to see if she was about to become a widow.
Those harrowing days were memorialized in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” a 1996 movie that earned nine Oscar nominations, including a best supporting actress nomination for Kathleen Quinlan, who played Ms. Lovell. (Tom Hanks played Mr. Lovell.)
The movie was based on Mr. Lovell’s memoir, “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13,” which was written with Jeffrey Kluger and later reissued in paperback as simply “Apollo 13.” The Lovells and their children were also characters in the 1998 HBO mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon.”
In those portrayals and others, Ms. Lovell helped make the astronaut’s wife a heroic archetype: the American housewife accepting her husband’s absences imposed by work, sacrificing peace of mind for the sake of his and their country’s grand adventures, confronting the possibility of his death with dignity while the nation looked on, and wringing from all of that a life she saw as charmed.
Marilyn Lillie Gerlach was born on July 11, 1930, in Milwaukee, to Lillie and Carl Gerlach. Her father ran a candy store.
As a freshman at Juneau High School in Milwaukee, she often made shy eye contact with a junior who worked behind the cafeteria counter to get free lunches. One day, that boy, Jim Lovell, asked her to the junior prom.
Soon enough, she found herself spending time on the family porch, chatting with Jim’s mother as he launched homemade rockets from a vacant lot nearby. When he attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Marilyn, after graduation, enrolled at George Washington University in Washington to be closer to him.
She typed his college thesis. Hours after he graduated in June 1952, they married at an Episcopal church in Annapolis.
Early on, Mr. Lovell worked as a naval test pilot. In 1962, he was chosen as one of the so-called New Nine, the second group of American astronauts (following the Mercury Seven), who also included Neil Armstrong.
On Christmas Day 1968, while Mr. Lovell was on the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned spaceflight to orbit the moon, Ms. Lovell answered her door to find a representative from Neiman Marcus carrying a large box with moon-themed décor. In it was a mink coat and a note The New York Times would later describe as “the most romantic card in the universe”: “To Marilyn from the Man in the Moon.” Ms. Lovell did her household chores that day in pajamas and her new mink.
On that mission, Mr. Lovell named a triangle-shaped mountain on the lunar surface Mount Marilyn. It would later serve as a landmark for astronauts, and in 2017, after campaigning by Mr. Lovell, the name was officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union.
While many astronauts and their wives eventually divorced, the Lovells remained together, despite the unusual stresses the family faced.
Ms. Lovell hid one of her pregnancies from her husband for four months, worrying that if it became widely known, NASA would deem her pregnancy to be a distraction for her husband and preclude him from flying into space. The success of her furtiveness came to disturb her, though, making her wonder if her husband simply had not been around long enough to notice she was pregnant, Lily Koppel wrote in her 2013 book, “The Astronaut Wives Club.”
Then there were the frantic days when it was unclear if Apollo 13 would return safely to Earth. Ms. Lovell, like other astronauts’ wives, devotedly watched television reports by Jules Bergman, the ABC News science correspondent who they felt could be depended on for unvarnished reporting. He gave Mr. Lovell a 10 percent chance of survival.
When Ms. Lovell’s 12-year-old daughter, Susan, became hysterical on seeing a priest at their door, Ms. Lovell found a way to soothe her. “Do you really think the best astronaut either one of us knows is going to forget something as simple as how to turn his spaceship around and fly it home?” she asked her daughter, according to Mr. Lovell’s memoir.
Reporters with notebooks, microphones and television cameras filled up the Lovell family lawn and driveway. She fielded a call from President Richard M. Nixon: “I just wanted you to know, Marilyn, that your president and the entire nation are watching your husband’s progress with concern,” he said. “Everything is being done to bring Jim home.”
When parachutes were seen on TV billowing out from the spaceship, guiding it safely to the ocean surface, a couple of famous astronauts in Ms. Lovell’s living room, Mr. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, opened champagne. President Nixon called with a new message: “I wanted to know if you’d care to accompany me to Hawaii to pick up your husband.”
She replied, “Mr. President, I’d love to.”
Emerging from her home in a red-, white- and blue-striped dress to speak to reporters, she said: “Isn’t this a great day? I am very thankful and humble, thankful to the men at Mission Control for making it possible for my husband to return to Earth.”
Mr. Lovell later worked for a marine company and in telecommunications. The family lived in Lake Forest for 40 years. He survives Ms. Lovell, along with their children, Barbara Harrison, Susan Lovell and Jeffrey and James Lovell III; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
However harrowing it was to be an astronaut’s wife, it fulfilled a dream Ms. Lovell had of living “a life of glamorous adventure,” Ms. Koppel wrote in “The Astronaut Wives Club.”
In an interview with Ms. Koppel, Ms. Lovell distilled her time in Houston into one sentence: “Those were the best years of my life.”