AUSTIN (KXAN) – Belinda Rodriguez and Ana Kesler look back on their uncle Arturo with fondness.
“He was very generous, very warm. Definitely a thinker,” Ana said.
“In fact, he was a bit of a prankster,” Belinda added.
It was only after his passing that they learned how special their uncle was.
“My aunt brings down all of these articles and awards and certificates,” Belinda said with wide-eyed amazement. “My mom and I look at each other and go, ‘What?'”
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Arturo Campos, an electrical engineer and University of Texas at Austin graduate, played a key role in saving the lives of the three astronauts during Apollo 13. This week, NASA could give Campos another honor.
Running out of power aboard Apollo 13
Campos was born in Laredo in 1934 and was the first member of his Mexican American family to attend college. In the early 1960s, he joined NASA and became one of the first Hispanics to work for the agency. He quickly worked his way up the ladder at NASA and became the “go-to” for electrical system issues during the Apollo missions.
On April 13, 1970, three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were hurling towards their doom. An explosion on the ship had caused oxygen to vent into space. Campos received a call in the middle of the night and rushed to Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
His task: figure out how to prevent the astronauts from freezing to death.
Campos reconstructed a plan he had worked on before the launch that would redirect power from the lunar lander to the command module. Power was restored and the Apollo 13 crew made their way home.
“If he didn’t come up with using the batteries from the lunar module and charging the system,” Belinda says, “if they had died, none of the other stuff would have mattered.”
For his contribution to the mission, Campos was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon. He stayed with NASA for another decade, helping recruit more Hispanic employees and serving as the first Council 660 President of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
Campos rarely shared his work with NASA with his family. “We didn’t know,” Belinda says.
The one time he mentioned his history with Apollo 13 to Belinda, she didn’t believe him.
“I had seen Apollo 13 and there was no uncle,” she said.
He passed away in 2004 at the age of the 66.
Naming the ‘Moonikin’
As mankind returns to the moon, Campos’ story is getting new life thanks to an inanimate object, the “Moonikin.”
“We actually reached out to our history office about some of the figures who are less well known,” says NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton.
The Moonikin is of three “crew members” that will board Artemis I the first flight of NASA’s deep-space vehicle, Orion. It’s a crash test dummy of sorts, wearing a spacesuit and outfitted with various sensors, and two gelatinous torsos aboard the ship will test how the journey will impact the body ahead of humanity’s return to the moon aboard Artemis II.
This week, NASA wants your help naming the Moonikin. Options include Ace, Delos, Rigel and Campos.
“It would be really an honor,” Ana said. “He definitely, I think, deserves to be recognized for his achievements. (His story) hasn’t been told. The story hasn’t been shared either.”
You can vote for the Moonikin’s name on NASA’s website and social media accounts. The final name of the Moonikin will be announced on Tuesday. Artemis I will take off this November. If you want to learn more about the mission and humanity’s return to the moon and eventual journey to Mars, NASA has outlined the mission here.