Forty-eight years ago as of April eleventh, Apollo 13 blasted off for the moon’s Fra Mauro highlands. The public was ho-hum about it, until things started going wrong. Captain Jim Lovell, Apollo 13’s commander, wrote a book about his experiences, formerly titled Lost Moon, and Ron Howard used that as his source material for his 1995 film, Apollo 13.
This movie is still pretty familiar, but I’ll recap it anyway. It begins with a brief bit about the Apollo 1 fire, and then zooms up to July 20, 1969, when the world is glued to their TV sets watching and waiting for Apollo 11 to land on the moon. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) careens through the streets of Houston in his snazzy sports car, and arrives at his house with a case of champagne. The place is full of people, many of them NASA astronauts and crew, and all are waiting with bated breath. When Neil Armstrong steps out on the moon’s surface, every one of them is extremely solemn. They’re not just watching a momentous occasion. They helped make it happen, and they know the men involved. This is personal.
“I’ll bet Janet Armstrong doesn’t get a wink of sleep tonight,” Jim’s wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinn) tells Jim later. “When you were on the far side of the moon, I didn’t sleep. Just vacuumed over and over and over.”
“We now live in a world where man has walked on the moon,” Jim answers. “It wasn’t a miracle. We just decided to go.”
It’s one thing to go, but to go back is quite another. The public is bored with Apollo 12, and by the time it’s Apollo 13’s turn in 1970, people are moving on to other things. That doesn’t stop Jim from being excited when he and his crew are moved up a slot to Apollo 13. Marilyn and their kids are elated, but Marilyn also has misgivings, as the number thirteen has a famously formidable stigma. Jim is casual about it. Thirteen does come after twelve, after all.
Preparations for the flight go swimmingly, and Lovell has an excellent crew: Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) as command module pilot and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) as lunar module pilot. They’ve got their routine down to a science; they’re so prepared that they can read each other’s tone of voice. Then two days before the launch, Charlie Duke comes down with the measles. It seems like no big deal since he’s on a different crew, but everyone’s been exposed to it, and everyone except Ken has had the measles before. Rather than bump everything to a later mission, Jim makes the executive decision to replace Ken with his backup, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Jack is euphoric. Ken is devastated.
Marilyn travels to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch. She’s been plagued by apprehension, including having a nightmare about Jim getting sucked out of the spacecraft. The morning of the launch, she’s taking a shower at her motel when her ring suddenly slips off and washes down the drain. This happened to the real Marilyn Lovell, who thought it was a bad omen.
Marilyn’s not the only one who’s anxious. At a press conference just before Ken is grounded, one of the journalists reminds the crew they’re not only carrying the number thirteen with them, but they’ll be touching down on the moon on April 13 at 1300. It seems like it would be a perfect storm of bad luck; however, the men of Apollo 13 laugh it off, and Fred even jokes that someone suggested they take a pig with them to balance the scales. Other than that, the men prefer to stay pragmatic about their mission.
The launch goes smoothly, and the flight seems placid until two days later, when the crew of Apollo 13 put on the traditional TV tour of the ship. Marilyn brings three of she and Jim’s four children to NASA to watch the broadcast in a special viewing room. The Apollo 13 men put on a fun show, blasting “Spirit In the Sky” on the portable tape player and demonstrating what drinking orange juice looks like in weightlessness. Unfortunately, the NASA people are the only ones to see the broadcast, because none of the networks carried the show.
The public’s apathy changes very quickly, though. Right after the broadcast shuts down, Jack gets the order to stir the Odyssey‘s oxygen tanks, and from then on, nothing is humdrum about Apollo 13. They’re losing oxygen, their fuel cells aren’t working, and what’s worse, the craft is pitching and yawing like crazy. It’s flirting with what’s called “gimbal lock,” or the loss of a degree of freedom. Each Apollo craft carried a gyroscope with three gimbals in it that helped the ship to navigate. For us non-aeronautical people (and I’m including myself in this), gimbal lock meant the ship’s navigational system wouldn’t be able to orient itself in terms of attitude. Basically, the ship would be a dead duck because it lost its frame of reference, and if that happened, it would have been tougher, if not impossible, for Apollo 13 to find its way home.
From that point on, Apollo 13 is headline news, and the scene at NASA is chaos. Or at least it would be if director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) didn’t keep his cool. “Let’s work the problem, people,” he says, “and let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Mission Control has to figure out how to use what little resources the ship has left to not only get the crew back, but to keep Jim, Jack and Fred breathing, since the ship’s taking on carbon dioxide. The lunar module becomes a lifeboat, and the ship is powered down to conserve fuel.
Tensions run high, both on Earth and in space, as everyone waits anxiously to see what will happen. No one has a longer wait than the crew of Apollo 13, who wear the batteries in their tape player down to nothing. To top it all off, Fred develops a kidney infection and Jim has to referee a spat between Fred and Jack. Nothing makes a tiny spacecraft feel even tinier quite like a shouting match.
Accuracy was the byword of Apollo 13. Everyone involved was absolutely meticulous at getting the details right, and everything from voice inflections to sets to dimensions to the upholstery in the Lovell home is dead-on. NASA’s special training plane, a KC-135 lovingly nicknamed “The Vomit Comet,” was used to shoot many of the weightless scenes.
The Mission Control set was so accurate that one NASA veteran had to remind himself when he left that he didn’t have to take the elevator on his way out (The real Apollo-era Mission Control is on the third floor of the Johnson Space Center.). Another high compliment came from Buzz Aldrin, who asked Ron Howard what vault he had gotten the launch footage out of. Stuff like this told the cast and crew that they had done their job right.
There were a few parts that were fictionalized for dramatic purposes. There’s one sequence when the crew have to adjust their trajectory by lining the Earth up in the window. In reality, it took only fifteen seconds instead of the movie’s thirty-six, but the latter is naturally more edgy.
The scene when Jack and Fred go at each other didn’t happen, either. In fact, one of the amazing things about the original footage and audio of the mission is how relatively calm everyone seems. It doesn’t take much to see why these guys couldn’t go bouncing off the walls with emotion. They were military men, and pilots, after all–if they didn’t keep clear heads, it would mean lives lost.
However, what was under the surface wasn’t quite so stoic. Everyone involved in the mission was scared stiff that they were going to lose the crew of the Odyssey, but they couldn’t let on. It was all about putting on a good face for the public. When it came to the film, though, the actors had to bring the stresses the men were feeling to the surface so the audience would understand what was going on in their heads, and, among other things, that plays out in Fred and Jack sniping. It also allows Hanks to exhibit more of the calm leadership that Jim Lovell was and is known for.
Gotta love effective character development.
Apollo 13 is a seat-clutcher to say the least, but as I said in my review of The Fighting Sullivans, it’s like a Titanic movie–we know how it ends. The suspense is purely vicarious. The camera work helps in this regard, because at the most tense moments it bears down on the actors in a stomach-dropping plunge, and then when things resolve there’s a lift like an intake of breath. It’s subtle, but it works immensely well. The casting in the film is perfect; I honestly can’t think of anyone else I would rather see in these roles. Everyone from Tom Hanks to Ed Harris to Gary Sinise conveys the strength and determination these men had during a tense and uncertain time. The Apollo 13 mission, like all the others, should be studied and learned from, and this film is a wonderful tribute to their efforts.
That does it for my part in the Outer Space Blogathon. For more, please check out Debra’s Moon In Gemini. Tomorrow we’ll hop over to our second blogathon of the weekend, The Great Western Blogathon, hosted by Catherine at Thoughts All Sorts. Thanks for reading, and hope to see you then!
This film is available on Amazon.
Lovell, Jim, with Jeffrey Kluger. Apollo 13. New York: Pocket Books, 1994. (Formerly titled Lost Moon)