Astronaut Thomas K. “TK” , best known for helping to guide the Apollo 13 mission home from near-catastrophe in 1970, has died, officials said Thursday.
He 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 said in a statement.
Mattingly began his career as a Navy pilot and then joined the NASA astronaut class of 1966. He served as command module pilot aboard Apollo 16 when astronauts explored the moon’s Descartes Highlands in 1972.
But Mattingly’s greatest legacy was his work on the ground in 1970, in support of Apollo 13. He had been slated to be aboard Apollo 13 but was removed 72 hours before lift due a possible exposure to rubella.
An explosion aboard Apollo 13 prompted the famous call for help from John “Jack” Swigert, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” which has been popularly quoted as, “Houston, we have a problem.”
That harrowing mission was brought to life for another generation by Ron Howard’s 1995 blockbuster movie “Apollo 13,” which cast Gary Sinise as Mattingly.
Mattingly’s insight and guidance on the ground was considered crucial to bringing , and James Lovell home safely.
“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.
Mattingly was also commander of the final test flight of the space shuttle Columbia, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 27, 1982.
“TK’s contributions have allowed for advancements in our learning beyond that of space,” Nelson said.
“He described his experience in orbit by saying, ‘I had this very palpable fear that if I saw too much, I couldn’t remember. It was just so impressive.’ He viewed the universe’s vastness as an unending forum of possibilities. As a leader in exploratory missions, TK will be remembered for braving the unknown for the sake of our country’s future.”
Auburn University, where Mattingly earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1958, also mourned his loss Friday.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of American hero and astronaut TK Mattingly,” the school said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com