It’s the final week of my look back at science in movies. The last movie I will be discussing is based on a true story and does a pretty good job being historically as well as scientifically accurate. It’s Ron Howard’s 1995 masterpiece Apollo 13. The film boasts a stellar cast, including Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris.
Apollo 13 tells the story of the aborted 1970 mission to the moon. It was based on the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, written by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. The film opens with a brief history of the Apollo program and picks up after the successful 1969 mission to the moon. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) hosts a house party to watch the moon landing, and vows to get there himself one day. In April of 1970, that dream comes true when Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) announces the Apollo 13 mission has been greenlit, and Lovell will lead the mission.
All seems well and good. The Apollo 13 crew even has a successful television broadcast once they get into space. But trouble strikes three days into the mission. When Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) does the routine stirring of the liquid oxygen tanks, one of them explodes, venting the contents out into space and shaking the ship around. Then another oxygen tank starts to leak. The crew tries shutting off a couple of the fuel cells to stop the leak, but it is unsuccessful. What ends up needing to be done is quickly power up the lunar module. What was supposed to get them to the moon becomes a lifeboat. It then falls to Kranz and Mission Control to come up with a procedure to get the Apollo 13 crew home.
The crew ends up having to combat several problems, including the carbon dioxide levels in the shuttle becoming toxic and freezing conditions when they have to run on minimal power. Eventually the Service Module is jettisoned to provide the command module the power it needs to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The big question surrounding the return is whether or not the module’s heat shield will hold, since it was badly damaged when the oxygen tank exploded. *Spoiler alert!* It works, And the astronauts are safe.
Apollo 13 rightly avoids adding a lot of human melodrama to the story. The tale of how the Apollo 13 crew in space and the Mission Control team on Earth worked together to solve such a difficult problem is compelling enough. The film benefits from its talented cast, led by Hanks. The two real shinning supporting performances come from Ed Harris as Gene Kranz and Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly (the astronaut who was bumped from the mission when medical saw the potential for him to develop the measles while in space, but then ended up being instrumental in developing the procedure to get the Apollo 13 crew home). The movie is a riveting entertainment, and was my choice for the Best Picture of 1999.
How does the science/history in the film measure up? One thing Apollo 13 got right was how it portrayed the scenes of weightlessness. As noted in an article from The Guardian titled Apollo 13: In Space, No One Can See You Exaggerate notes,
The zero-gravity scenes in the movie are extremely convincing, because they’re real. Director Ron Howard persuaded NASA to let him film on its reduced-gravity aircraft, known as the Vomit Comet.–
An omission made by the film was a mid-course correction that was made while en route to the moon, As IMDB notes,
The movie makes no mention of a mid-course correction made while en route to the moon which took the spacecraft off of a free return trajectory. After the explosion, a second correction was successfully made to put the spacecraft back on a free return trajectory. Without this correction, the astronauts still would have swung around the moon, but would have missed the earth on the return leg. Although a free return trajectory was agreed upon in the movie, the engine burn to accomplish this was not portrayed. The astronauts also made a four-minute engine burn after swinging around the moon to gain additional speed and to enable them to splash down in the Pacific Ocean. There is a brief reference to this in the movie, but this maneuver was not portrayed.–IMDB
There was also some creative license taken in the launch sequence.
The scene of the Saturn V launch shows the horizontal service arms swinging back after the rocket’s ignition. The arms swung back in milliseconds after ignition, once the rocket climbed to a height of two inches. In the movie the service-arms goes in one by one, but in reality they went simultaneously.–IMDB
What about the procedure developed in the movie to combat the toxic carbon dioxide level in the shuttle? The real Ken Mattingly tells a story slightly different from the movie. As noted in Ken Mattingly Explains How the Apollo 13 Movie Differed From Real Life,
In the movie, as the crew faces a deadly buildup of carbon dioxide, a team in mission control builds a new system on the spot that adapts an originally incompatible filter. “Well, the real world is better than that,” Mattingly explained, saying there was a simulation for the Apollo 8 mission where a cabin fan was jammed due to a loose screw.The solution that they came up with was that they could make a way to use the vacuum cleaner in the command module with some plastic bags cut up and taped to the lithium hydroxide cartridges and blow through it with a vacuum cleaner. So, having discovered it, they said, “Okay, it’s time for beer.” Well, on 13, someone says, “You remember what we did on that sim? Who did that?” So in nothing short, Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin showed up, and we talked about “How did you build that bag and what did you do?” … Of course it worked like a gem.
There’s some fact and fiction in the history as well as the science of Apollo 13. But the minor inaccuracies never feel lazy. Rather, they provide some tension in the narrative. And the little things it gets wrong are outweighed by Ron Howard’s attention to detail in major aspects of the story and the science of it. Apollo 13 was a big part of what got me interested in NASA. And for that, I am eternally gratefully. It’s as compelling to watch after multiple viewings.