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Chester Lee; Navy Captain, Apollo Mission Director

March 09, 2000|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON — Chester M. Lee, a retired Navy captain who was mission director on the NASA teams that launched the final six Apollo moon missions, including the endangered Apollo 13, has died from complications of open heart surgery. He was 80.

Lee died Feb. 23 at the Washington Hospital Center.

At his death, Lee was a special advisor to Spacehab, a Washington-based company that provides services to NASA. He had worked with Spacehab since his retirement from NASA in 1987 and helped develop the pressurized modules used by astronauts to conduct experiments in space.

Lee joined NASA in 1965, after a distinguished 24-year Navy career in which he survived the harrowing sinking of his ship by Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II.

First named NASA chief of plans in its mission operations directorate, he became mission director in 1969 and over the program's last three years supervised the missions for Apollo 12 through 17. During the particularly difficult Apollo 13 mission, which became the basis of a popular motion picture, he helped the astronauts return to Earth despite the explosion of an oxygen tank in mid-flight.

Lee was known for his rapport with the astronauts and his personal concern and communication during missions. To understand what they would experience on the moon, he even walked the lava fields of Hawaii used in their training.

He went on to become program director of the first joint space venture between the United States and the Soviet Union, the 1973-75 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

After that mission, in which Soviet and American astronauts docked in space in 1975, Lee began working in NASA's shuttle operations when they were expanded to include foreign governments and corporations.

Born in Deery, Pa., to Italian immigrant parents, Lee graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942. After radar training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he entered the World War II fleet as gunnery officer on the destroyer Drexler. Kamikaze pilots attacked and sank the ship, killing 158 men. Lee was among 52 survivors.

After the war, he trained in missile systems and participated in the Navy's development of the Polaris missile. He was also the commander of the destroyers Rodman and Gyatt.

Lee is survived by his wife, Rose; a son, David; two daughters, Virginia Lee and Nancy Lee Cusher; and his sister, Mary Lee.

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