50 Years Ago.
It’s been 50 years since the perilous flight of Apollo 13. Apollo 13 was the ‘successful failure’ of the Apollo moon missions which had to abort its planned lunar landing due to an exploding oxygen tank, which crippled the combined spacecraft’s service module. Despite the explosion, which resulted in both a limited oxygen supply and compromised electrical power (as well as a string of other potentially lethal obstacles), the story had a happy ending.
The combined ceaseless efforts of engineers, ground controllers and backup crews working tirelessly and ingeniously in simulators helped the three crew members return safely to Earth. It’s a story so extraordinary that if Hollywood created it, most studios would probably reject it for being too improbable. December of 1969 saw the release of an oddly prescient movie of three men returning from a fictional space station in a crippled Apollo command module. The movie was called “Marooned,” and it starred Gene Hackman, James Franciscus and Richard Crenna. In this fictional space survival story, one of the astronauts martyred himself, and another went insane before their last minute rescue. “Marooned” would win an Oscar for its relatively crude visual effects (it doesn’t hold a candle to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Four months later in April of 1970, the real-life story of Apollo 13 would unfold on television screens all over the world, and it was a lot more compelling than its fictional antecedent.
The Apollo 13 mission crew, Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise, had their epic survival story told in Lovell’s own book “Lost Moon” (1994), an excellent PBS Nova Special, “Apollo 13: To The Edge And Back” (1994), and of course, the Oscar-winning film adaptation of their tale, director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), which celebrates its silver anniversary the same year as the actual mission celebrates its fiftieth. As a longtime space geek, I’ve read the book, seen the documentary, and have attended theatrical screenings of the film no less than five times. I’ve owned the movie in laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray formats. It is the gold standard of spaceflight movies, and the primary focus of this piece.
“Apollo 13”: The Movie.
The film begins with real narration from former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite recalling the story of the Apollo 1 fire, as recreated footage of the accident plays. We then cut to the Houston, Texas home of astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) on the night of the first manned lunar landing, July 20th 1969. The entire Lovell family, along with various astronauts and their wives/girlfriends, are watching the historic event on the Lovell’s 25” color TV (25” TVs were considered huge back then…). The jokes and nervous energy of the partiers dies down as they collectively hold their breath to watch Neil Armstrong descend the lunar module ladder onto the surface of the moon. From one footstep to the next, humankind is changed forever in an instant.
During the party, we are introduced to most of the key players in the story; Lovell’s supportive yet fatigued wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), and future crewmates, command module pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), lunar module pilot Fred Haise (the late Bill Paxton), along with swinging bachelor astronaut Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon, who is a near dead-ringer for the late astronaut). At this stage in the story, Lovell, Haise and Mattingly are slated to fly on Apollo 14.
Afterward, a slightly drunk Jim and Marilyn have a heart-to-heart in the backyard. He is still awed by the history of what just happened, while she is more sympathetic to the wives of the astronauts. Feeling playful, Jim points out Marilyn’s ‘mountain’ on the moon, which he named for her during his prior Apollo 8 lunar orbital mission. She soberly remarks, “I don’t see it.” The scene ends with the two of them in each other’s arms, but their differences of opinion are made clear; Marilyn very much loves her husband, but would probably be just as happy if he took a desk job over his current high-risk assignment.
During a PR tour with both elected representatives and press, Lovell is pulled aside by Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis), the former Mercury astronaut who’s now in charge of crew assignments. Apollo 13 commander Alan Shepard’s inner-ear issue has flared up, making Lovell and his team the new prime crew of Apollo 13, destined to land on the Fra Mauro highlands region of the Moon. An ecstatic Lovell dashes home to break the news to Marilyn. She gives Jim her requisite support, but is slightly spooked by the mission bearing the unlucky number 13. Jim is, of course, too excited to be fazed by superstition. Later on, Marilyn tells a disappointed Jim she won’t be attending his launch in Florida, because she can’t deal with the stress of sitting through another (Lovell was already a two-time spaceflight veteran at this point).
As the crew trains exhaustively to prepare for their moonshot, bad news arrives just as their massive, 363 ft. Saturn V rocket is crawling into launch position; backup Apollo 13 commander Charlie Duke has the measles, and both crews have been exposed. The men have all had the measles in childhood, except Ken Mattingly. In the wake of the Apollo 1 fire and with fleeting congressional support, a risk-averse NASA doesn’t want to send a medically at-risk astronaut into space (a very relatable position now, given the current coronavirus pandemic). Mattingly is bumped to a later mission (Apollo 16) and the backup command module pilot, Jack Swigert takes his place. Lovell is outraged, but forced to take NASA’s position as his own or risk his entire crew being bumped. He breaks the bad news to Mattingly, who is immediately embittered (this reaction of Mattingly’s is dramatically exaggerated for the film, as the real astronauts were much cooler customers about this sort of thing in real-life). With only a few days to go before the launch, Lovell and Haise are forced to train with their new, unfamiliar command module pilot Swigert.
As launch approaches, Marilyn changes her mind and decides to attend the launch. She surprises Jim the night before, showing up just as wives and loved ones gather to say their goodbyes to the astronauts across a road to the launchpad… a necessary quarantine for the astronaut’s safety (such safe-distancing is also eerily prescient in the current COVID19 era). The morning of the launch, Marilyn’s wedding ring slips off her finger and goes down a hotel bathroom shower drain. The bad omens seem to stack up…
April 11th, 1970. The day of the launch arrives. We see astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert suit up into their bulky pressure suits, carrying their (temporary) portable life support systems onto the elevator, up the launch tower and across the gantry to board the command module, which caps off a 363 ft. stack of Saturn V rocket.
Boarding the craft, the men say goodbye to the launch crew who tightly buckle them up for the wild ride ahead. We then cut to Mission Control in Houston, where the flight will be monitored once the Saturn V rocket clears its launch tower. There, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) receives the latest in a series of new ‘mission vests’ sewn by his wife. That the stern Kranz is seen so nervously anticipating his wife’s latest creation tells us much about this tough-as-nails character with a sentimental center. Taking a sip of his coffee, he asks the team of stationed flight controllers to give him a “go/no-go” for launch. Unanimous ‘gos’ are given, and the tempo of (late) composer James Horner’s score begins to ramp up. The music for “Apollo 13” is easily Horner’s best since 1986’s “ALIENS.”
At the launch site in Florida, fuel pumps disconnect, the service gantries retract. As the countdown ticks to zero, the monstrous rocket begins to shake into violent life, with ice flaking off the massive vehicle (the ice formed on the rocket’s skin due to the cryogenically stored fuels that fill most of the its total interior volume).
With an absolutely stunning (and still seamless) combination of miniature and computer-generated imagery, the massive stack lifts off, clearing the tower in humongous clouds of steam, as high pressured sprinkler systems instantly douse the explosive flames left in the vehicle’s wake.
Note: there is a glut of real-life Saturn V launch footage existing in NASA’s public domain archives that director Ron Howard and his artists could’ve used, including actual footage of the Apollo 13 launch itself. But Howard and Digital Domain FX didn’t take the easy way out; they chose instead to recreate the launch as if it were happening right now.
This new created launch FX use new angles and give a sense of movement never achieved or even possible with NASA’s static cameras in their preset positions. No doubt it was a costly decision to eschew NASA’s available stock footage, but the results give the launch sequence a visceral power it could’ve never achieved by reusing grainy often-seen footage from 1970.
Following a series of bone-rattling separations and engine firings (and some zero-gravity puking from Haise), the final stage of the Saturn V rocket is placed on a course into lunar orbit. Soon it’s time for command module pilot Swigert to dock his Odyssey spacecraft with the lunar module Aquarius, which is still tucked inside of the rocket. After an elegant cosmic dance, the two craft are joined, and the combined Odyssey/Aquarius are off to the moon…
In the first of several planned television broadcasts from space, Lovell, Haise and Swigert put on a ‘life in space’ show for a seemingly disinterested public (this was the third planned lunar landing mission, and there was a pervading feeling to some that it was becoming ‘routine’). Lovell demonstrates how the crew eats, enjoys music and other trivialities of space travel as jokester Fred Haise toys with the lunar module’s cabin depressurization valve, causing a brief booming sound within the ship. “Gotcha!” he mischievously giggles, as Lovell jokingly admonishes him for the camera. With the Apollo 13 show ending, Lovell wishes the world “a pleasant evening…”
Note: “Apollo 13” uses many bits of footage shot on sets stowed aboard a NASA free-falling training aircraft to simulate the microgravity of outer space. We see the actors drinking floating globules of orange juice, and floating through hatchways in the most convincing space sequences ever committed to film (or any other visual medium). The actors appear perfectly weightless. Even Kevin Bacon’s hair seems to rise a bit. Short of filming on location in outer space, “Apollo 13” (made over a quarter of a century ago) offers an uncompromising level of spaceflight realism that would make even Stanley Kubrick blush. This is as real as it gets.
After the TV transmission, Odyssey pilot Swigert is ordered by ground controllers to stir the cryogenic fuel of the command module with the innocuous flicking of a switch, and the electric current travels into a frayed piece of insulating coil which sparks a massive explosion. Unknown to the crew at the time, an entire panel of Odyssey‘s service module had been blown off of the spacecraft. With one oxygen tank ruptured and a second one bleeding out, the crew works feverishly to get their bearings and tries to assess whether or not they will be the first men to die en route to the moon. After anxiously conferring with flight controllers in Houston, the crew are told to deactivate Odyssey’s electrical systems and close the remaining fuel cells to prevent further leakage. The three of them float down into the lunar module Aquarius, which becomes their lifeboat.
It’s at this point in the story Mission Control in Houston becomes the counterbalance to the story. Teams of anxious, stressed-out ground controllers and engineers like Seymour “Sy” Liebergot (Clint Howard, director Ron’s brother) and John Aaron (Loren Dean) are right there in the virtual cockpit, along with the astronauts. This technological chorus is firmly held together by the no bulls#!t Kranz. It’s soon decided that the only way to get the crew safely home is to do a slingshot around the moon, using lunar gravity to help propel the combined crippled spacecraft back to Earth.
Aboard the darkened lunar module as it passes behind the moon’s far side, Lovell has a fantasy of a lunar landing that will never be. We see him plowing his thick glove into the fine powdery lunar soil, and merrily skipping along in the moon’s one-sixth gravity. He looks up at the Earth…and is brought back to his less pleasant reality by a crackle of static from the radio. Lovell’s moonwalk daydream is the only fantasy sequence of the film, and the technologies used to create it would later be reused for Hanks’ epic 1998 miniseries “From The Earth To The Moon” (more on that later).
Following their slingshot around the moon, the earthbound crew of Apollo 13 are still facing multiple impediments to their survival, not to mention increasingly dire living conditions. Haise is becoming feverish, the ambient temperature in the unheated spacecraft plummets to near-freezing temperatures, bodily waste has to be stored in plastic bags (venting it into space might push them off course) and even their food rations are frozen solid. As if that weren’t enough, their own breathing is killing them, as expelled carbon dioxide is quickly building up within the cabin. The lunar module’s air scrubbers are overworked, as the system was designed for two people, not three.
With ground engineers acting as the astronauts’ lifeline, a jury-rigged solution is created, making the Odyssey’s square air filters somehow fit over the circular opening of the Aquarius’ filter socket using the magic of plastic bags, unused spacesuit hoses and duct tape. With the crew able to breathe again, that is one problem solved, and about a thousand or so more to go until the Odyssey can be powered up again (somehow?) for splashdown into the Pacific.
Along with the back-and-forth between the crew and mission controllers, a third dramatic front is opened with Marilyn Lovell trying to be the good NASA wife and never-ending well of support for her kids, including teenaged daughter Barbara (Mary Kate Schellhardt), preteen Susan (Emily Ann Lloyd) and youngest son Jeffrey (Miko Hughes, whom I recognized as “Gage” from 1989’s “Pet Semetary”). Away at military school is her teenaged son, Jay (Max Elliot Slade). Kathleen Quinlan (the movie’s other acting Oscar nominee) is so real in her performance that you feel every moment of her agony in trying to hold it all together. One of her best scenes in the film is when NASA press liaison officer Henry Hurt (Xander Berkeley) forwards a request from the media to put a satellite transmitter in the Lovell’s front yard in order to give the world a minute-by-minute account of her family’s coping. Marilyn finally has enough and refuses, stating, “If they have a problem with it, they can take it up with my husband. He’ll be home on Friday!” Marilyn also has to deal with a mother-in-law who’s recently suffered a stroke (Jean Speegle-Howard, director Ron’s real-life mother). Speegle-Howard steals a few little scenes here and there, not the least of which is her line regarding her boundless faith in her son; “If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.” Director Howard’s father Rance also cameos as a family priest.
An embittered, self-isolating Ken Mattingly is thrust back into the game when he is told of Apollo 13’s emergency status. He is hurriedly dressed and rushed to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston (renamed the Johnson Space Center three years later) to work out a way for the crippled command module to reactivate as many vital systems as possible, thus allowing the electrically-compromised craft to splashdown safely in the Pacific. There is so little electricity left aboard Odyssey that any spike in usage will doom the ship’s chances of return. Working round the clock with electrical systems guru John Aaron, the two eventually figure out a way of reversing the flow of electrical power from the healthier batteries of Aquarius into the damaged Odyssey, supplying the craft with just enough juice to survive reentry and splashdown.
As Apollo 13 draws ever closer to Earth, it’s time for the crew to detach the crippled service module of the Odyssey. Days after the explosion, Lovell, Haise and Swigert get their first look at the detached module, and they see that an entire panel of the spacecraft’s aft section is missing. Lovell takes photos of it, as his shipmates are awestruck by the scope of the damage. A morbid thought hits both Kranz and Deke Slayton; what if the exploding service module damaged the Odyssey’s reentry heat shield? If so, the crew of the Odyssey wouldn’t be able to visually to detect such damage, let alone do anything about it.
As the time for reentry approaches, the crew settles back into the Odyssey using Mattingly’s new power-up sequence in order to safely restart the ship within its electrical budget. They detach their faithful ‘lifeboat’ Aquarius and wish it a fond farewell, as it will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Around the world and at home, everyone is uniting in best wishes for the three astronauts, who are just moments away from taking the gumdrop-shaped command module (the only surviving component of their spaceflight) into a fiery atmospheric reentry and splashdown into the Pacific ocean. As the three astronauts are strapped into their couches, Lovell tells his shipmates, “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”
Odyssey begins her violent descent…
Increasing friction from the upper atmosphere envelops the ship in super-heated plasma, as Odyssey enters a predicted radio blackout. Marilyn, her daughters, son Jeffrey and their loved ones are watching coverage of the flight’s return on live TV in the Lovell’s Houston home, as is teenaged son Jay at school. The blackout is supposed to last three minutes. Tension within Mission Control builds to a stifling level as the blackout enters its fourth minute. Finally, there’s a crackle of radio static, and Jim Lovell’s voice is heard saying, “Hello Houston, this is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again!”
Applause explodes. Screams of unbridled joy are heard throughout the Lovell home, and a stunned Jay is jostled into reality by his cheering classmates. In Mission Control, the usually terse Kranz is brought to tears as his colleagues break out celebratory cigars. The mood is overwhelmingly jubilant. The crew of Apollo 13 is home.
Helicopters from the USS Iwo Jima arrive at Odyssey’s splashdown site, as naval frogmen arrive at the capsule. Hoisting the weakened crew one at a time into the choppers, Haise, Swigert and Lovell are taken to the recovery vessel, where they wash, change clothes and are soon ready to face the warmly welcoming crew of the Iwo Jima.
We then hear Hanks, narrating in character as Jim Lovell:
“Our mission was called ‘a successful failure,’ in that we returned safely but never made it to the moon. In the following months, it was determined that a damaged coil built inside the oxygen tank sparked during our cryo stir and caused the explosion that crippled the Odyssey. It was a minor defect that occured two years before I was even named the flight’s commander. Fred Haise was going back to the moon on Apollo 18, but his mission was cancelled because of budget cuts; he never flew in space again. Nor did Jack Swigert, who left the astronaut corps and was elected to Congress from the state of Colorado. But he died of cancer before he was able to take office. Ken Mattingly orbited the moon as Command Module Pilot of Apollo 16, and flew the space shuttle, having never gotten the measles. Gene Kranz retired as Director of Flight Operations just not long ago. And many other members of Mission Control have gone on to other things, but some are still there. As for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space. I watched other men walk on the Moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”
Real Life Vs. Reel Life.
Oscar-winning director (and former child TV star) Ron Howard (“Backdraft” “Beautiful Mind” “Solo”) was meticulous in his attention to real-life details of the mission, as well as early 1970s period feel and flavor. From repeated shots of flight controllers smoking like chimneys (including the flight surgeon) to tacky, wood-paneled walls with gold & green furnishings, “Apollo 13” is certainly an accurate time capsule of that era.
The sets of the Apollo spacecraft interiors (lunar and command modules) were faithfully created by the Kansas Cosmosphere (now called Cosmosphere) space museum. For many of the zero gravity shots, those cramped interior sets were flown aboard a KC-135 “vomit comet”, the large aircraft that NASA uses to train astronauts for weightlessness by doing multiple parabolas in flight, resulting in brief, 25 seconds periods of free fall. Howard and his actors trained in the craft in preparation for shooting. After getting the hang of the KC-135, the actors shot their scenes of zero gravity for the film. These quick moments of free-fall were then carefully edited into the rest of the film to give the illusion of weightlessness whenever the action cut to wide shots of the astronauts ‘floating.’
For closer shots, the actors cheated gravity by sitting or standing on balancing boards (much like teeter-totters in a playground), with a deliberately unsteady camera to give the action a hint of microgravity chaos. To paraphrase real-life Apollo Flight Director Gene Krantz, wire rigs were not an option. The legendary director Stanley Kubrick cheated gravity in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) by building a massive set on a centrifuge so that his actors could literally climb the walls, but even mad genius Kubrick could not create the perfect zero-gravity effects that director Ron Howard achieves using NASA’s KC-135. Only shooting a movie in outer space could achieve greater realism.
While actors Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) might not win any lookalike contests of their real-life astronaut counterparts (though Bacon might come close), they feel so utterly authentic in their roles that one can easily excuse occasional moments added for dramatic emphasis, such as the astronauts angrily shouting at each other in space (which never happened, according to astronauts Lovell & Haise). The actors also handle their characters’ technical jargon with great proficiency and fluency.
Kudos to screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert as well, who’ve smartly adapted Lovell & Kluger’s book “Lost Moon” into an easy-to-follow screenplay. Unlike Star Trek’s technobabble, every technical term heard in the film is absolutely real; in fact, some of it is taken near-verbatim from the actual flight records. Oft-repeated acronyms such as TLI (trans-lunar injection), RCS (reaction control system), MECO (main-engine cutoff), etc. are all very real terms commonly in use in spaceflight operations then and today. Even if one isn’t particularly well-versed in spaceflight or engineering terminology, the script is easy enough to follow without too much remedial exposition. It’s like finding oneself lost in a foreign country, but gradually learning the local language through osmosis.
Actor Ed Harris also provides an intense, grounded, earthy counterbalance to the astronauts’ stories as flight director Gene Kranz; a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, buzzcut, ex-Korean war pilot whose “failure is not an option” approach kept his team on track in order to bring the crew home. Harris’ work earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for the role. Similar sentiments go to Kathleen Quinlan’s brilliant, grounded portrayal of Marilyn Lovell. Surprisingly, the film didn’t win Oscars in any of the major categories; garnering statues only for Sound Mixing and Editing. That “Apollo 13″ film didn’t win Oscars for its innovative zero-gravity cinematography, let alone Harris and Quinlan’s performances, is proof that the Academy Awards are largely arbitrary.
Observant viewers will be treated to a couple of blink-and-you’ll miss-them cameos by the real Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn. The real Marilyn is briefly visible (wearing a navy blue blazer and scarf) in the bleachers during the launch, while husband Jim plays the captain of the USS Iwo Jima in the film’s ending, as he welcomes his fictional counterpart aboard following the recovery of the command module Odyssey. Seeing Tom Hanks welcomed aboard by the true hero of the story is a moment of pure movie magic.
Flight Manual: Jim Lovell’s “Lost Moon” (1994).
Receiving this book as a Christmas gift back in 1994, I eagerly read it cover-to-cover over a few days. Lovell’s story, as told to writer Jeffrey Kluger, recounts the Apollo 13 tale in a level of detail impossible to achieve in a two-hour movie. While some of the movie’s bickering among the crew clearly never happened (a necessary convention in filmmaking, since movies need dramatic focal points), other moments in the film were surprisingly on point.
Harrowing incidents not seen in the film, such as exploding lunar module batteries, as well as Lovell describing what it was like trying to sleep in a near-frozen spacecraft, are recounted in great detail. For fans of the film, Lovell’s book (retitled “Apollo 13” for its paperback edition) adds some nuance and shading to many incidents skimmed over in the film for lack of time. Highly recommended.
“Apollo 13: To The Edge And Back” (1994).
This was the PBS Nova documentary made right around the time the movie adaptation of the story was in production. Interviewing many of the real-life participants, this documentary was the definitive onscreen account of the story until Ron Howard’s film was released a year later. Near the very end of the video, you’ll see the real-life Gene Kranz, who still tears up when describing his feelings when he realized the crew survived. The documentary can be found here via YouTube, and as a bonus feature on the Universal Blu-Ray release.
“From The Earth To The Moon” (1998).
In 1998, “Apollo 13” star Tom Hanks partnered with HBO to produce a 12-part miniseries called “From The Earth To The Moon.” The miniseries functions as a television companion to “Apollo 13”, chronicling US manned spaceflight from the early days of Projects Mercury and Gemini to the very last Apollo lunar landing. Each episode opened with Hanks speaking directly to the viewer (Rod Serling-style) about the theme of the episode, ending each introduction with “…from the Earth to the moon.”
We meet many of the early NASA astronauts as characters in this miniseries, including Alan Shepard (Ted Levine, of “Silence of the Lambs”), Deke Slayton (Nick Searcy), Buzz Aldrin (future “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston), and many others. The first few episodes focus primarily on the early space race, later episodes detail the moon landings and their objectives. The last two episodes were a bit more out-of-the-box, with the penultimate episode devoted entirely to the wives of the astronauts, with a final installment curiously paralleling the Apollo 17 mission with the recollections of aged French magician/filmmaker Georges Méliès (Hanks, in questionable age makeup and French accent). Méliès directed 1902’s silent film classic, “A Trip to the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans la Lune”).
With excellent production value and a few memorable performances, there is much to recommend about “From The Earth To The Moon.” The entire series is currently available on DVD/Blu-Ray, as well as HBO streaming services (HBO Go, HBO Now), and Amazon Prime Video.
Before the current coronavirus pandemic, “Apollo 13” was due to return to theaters in April for a limited 50th/25th anniversary screening, but with movie theaters temporarily closed due to current pandemic protocols, that will likely not happen this year. However, like the ‘successful failure’ the film celebrates, one can still enjoy “Apollo 13″ at home in a variety of ways. The physical media DVDs and Blu-Rays can be purchased on Amazon.com with safe, social-distancing delivery (be sure to wipe down all incoming packages). “Apollo 13″ is also available for streaming on the STARZ channel/app, as well as Amazon Prime Video and YouTube for a $3.99 (US) rental fee as well.
To my readers, I once again wish you and your loved ones safety and good health in this difficult time. Here’s hoping this true story of courage in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity can make for an uplifting and inspiring at-home movie night. Enjoy!