Three Films About the Space Race

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

There now exists a trilogy of superb films about the early years of spaceexploration. It's not a true trilogy in the sense of a coherent whole created bya single author, but it covers three significant aspects of space explorationand does it magnificently. The three films are October Sky, The RightStuff, and Apollo 13.

October Sky

October Sky refers to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October4, 1957, and is also an anagram of the title of the book on which the film isbased, Rocket Boys. This is the lowest-key and least dramatic ofthe three films but probably the best for characterization and human drama.

The film takes place in Coalwood, West Virginia, a company mining townhaunted by the prospect of the eventual shutdown of its only industry, the OlgaCoal Mine. It's a dreary place with a severely constricted view of the world,where about the only options are coal mining or, for the lucky few, leaving for college on a football scholarship. We can presume the lucky few don't come back. Still, though, it's not really a brutal place, just tough and poor.

The film opens with a montage of townsfolk somberly listening to radiobulletins about the significance of Sputnik and wondering what it all means.Later they gather outside at night for a glimpse of Sputnik, something that, bythe way, only happens in the movies. Early satellite predictions were of dubiousaccuracy at best, and often enough you spotted the satellite by accident ratherthan by design. But the townsfolk spot it, and one of them is transformed by it.Teenage Homer Hickham decides do go into space.

His first launch goes pretty much like most of America's first launches. Itblows up on the pad, taking with it a good size piece of the front yard fence.This is no laughing matter in a town where the coal company owns and maintainsall the houses. He gets two friends interested, and for technical expertise theyenlist Quentin, the local science geek who had previously been completely out ofthe social loop. Quentin locates a Scientific American article detailing how tobuild a rocket. The construction goes smoothly until they reach the point wherethey need to weld a washer to the base of the rocket to provide a nozzle. Theyonly know two people who can weld. One is Homer's unsympathetic older brother, who is enrolledin auto shop but whose only interests are football and girls, and the other isSilesian miner Ike Wisosky, who works in the machine shop of the mine. Ike isconcerned about losing his job if he's caught doing unauthorized work on companytime, but surreptitiously welds the rocket.

The first launch, from a hill overlooking the mine, is a near disaster. Therocket loops erratically and nearly hits the mine. Homer's father (played byChris Cooper), the mine foreman, immediately suspects Ike of doing the weldingand fires him from the machine shop. He berates his son as a "thief"for having the work done on company time and forbids any rocketry on companyproperty.

The only adult character in the film who wholeheartedly backs the boys istheir science teacher, Frieda Riley (Laura Dern). She is about the onlycharacter in the film besides Homer who sees some alternative other than leavingtown on a football scholarship or working in the coal mine. 

The nearest land not owned by the company is eight miles away, so the boysset up a launch site there. There's a long succession of failed launches. Alocal black man views a launch - he is nearly hit by the rocket - and shows theboys that the exhaust had melted the nozzle. He advises them that the kind ofsteel necessary to stand the heat is expensive, but he can get it for them. Theboys finally hit on salvaging old rails as a money-making scheme, and suffer asevere panic when they hear an oncoming train. They run to the train, trying towarn it that the rails are out, just in time to see it turn aside onto anothertrack. The boys also discover they need a quick-evaporating liquid to mix withtheir fuel to obtain better consistency and freedom from air pockets. A localmoonshiner solves that problem for them. With proper design and materials, theboys start having successful launches. People begin to notice, and eventuallytheir work is reported in the newspaper.

The newspaper story brings the rocketry to a sudden end. The boys arearrested for starting a forest fire with one of their rockets. A rocket wasfound at the scene of the fire, but not until the newspaper article were thepolice able to identify the source. The boys are ordered to quit rocketry.

At the same time, Homer's father was hospitalized for injuries he receivedduring a cave-in. The mine health coverage would not pay for the full cost ofhis hospitalization, so one of the two sons had to work in the coal mine to makeends meet. Homer's brother would lose any chance of a football scholarship if hequit school, so Homer volunteered and dropped out of school. His last view asthe elevator drops down the mine shaft was of Sputnik passing overhead. Homer'srocket dreams seemed to come to an end.

One night, though, Homer woke up with a sudden inspiration. After strugglingmightily with the math, he finally succeeded in proving that their last rocketcould not possibly have had enough range to start the forest fire. Armed withthis information, he and Quentin calculated the range of the lost rocket andsucceeded, somewhat implausibly, in finding it. Hedemonstrated this to Miss Riley, and then to the high school principal. Theprincipal contacted the police, and for the first time got to inspect thealleged rocket, which the principal immediately recognized as anaeronautical flare, not a rocket. The Rocket Boys go back into rocketry. Homerhas a tense confrontation with his father after announcing that he has nointentions of working in the mine for the rest of his life.

The film portrays Homer's father as a stern but fair man. The miners commenton his courage in rescuing others in a cave-in, and there are numerousreferences to how much other people respect him. He comes to the rescue of a boybeing abused by his drunken stepfather, and eventually loosens up enough to helphis son during a crisis in his rocketry, and finally to come out and view thelast launch. The obvious moral is that he's a bit rigid perhaps, but fair andjust underneath.

Baloney. The guy is a complete and total jerk. This is an example of what I call"Nazi with a puppy dog" film-making. You've all seen the scene, wheresome Nazi is shown tending his garden or loving his kids or petting his dog, theidea being that we're really not all that different from him. The bottom line is theguy is a Nazi, and the fact he tends his garden, loves his kids and pets his dogdoesn't stop him from being a Nazi. Likewise, the fact that Homer's father cantranscend being a jerk on occasion doesn't redeem him - if anything, it makeshis normally loathsome character even more tragic by showing he has thecapability of rising to a higher level but fails to do it. 

And the fact that life in the coal fields is tough doesn't change things. Ikethe welder lives in the same environment and remains humane; other miners manageto be more humane. Homer's high school principal, hardly a cuddly characterhimself, moves quickly to set things right once he is convinced the boys areinnocent of starting the forest fire. But Homer's father remains resolute,indeed elemental, in his cloddishness.

The one time in the film I felt contempt for Homer came after he returnedhome from winning the science fair. His father couldn't even be bothered to comedown and greet him, and when Homer went to the mine to see him all he got was asneer that Homer met his hero and didn't even know it. Homer replied "he'snot my hero. You are." After the emotional abuse Homer took from his fatherin this film, this sort of self-abasement is grotesque and just plain creepy.What in the world is there in his father that is even remotely heroic? Well, he wasbrave. So was Genghis Khan. So what?

My first impulse on viewing the scene where Homer's mother said that the minewouldn't cover the cost of all his father's hospitalization was outrage at theinjustice. After all, the man had been injured rescuing other miners, and bytoday's standards a hospital stay in 1957 would have been a penny-ante expense.My later sentiment was that it was in fact, perfect justice. Homer's fathercalled him a thief for using a miniscule amount of company time and resourceswelding his rocket, and banished the man responsible from the machine shop. Atmost the welding could have consumed a couple of cents' worth of welding rod andelectricity. The time could only have amounted to a few cents' worth, maybe noneat all if things were slack and the welder did it on down time. So when Homer'sfather is denied care because some bean counter wants to save a trivial amountof money, what goes around does indeed come around. He's merely being treatedthe same way he treated others.

I lived through the 1950's. Am I nostalgic? It was a happy enough time giventhat people of the time didn't know anything better, but there is not enoughgold in Fort Knox to persuade me to go back. When people try to tell me the 1950's were more moral than the present, theyhave to be joking. Take all the Internet porn and schoolyard shootings of thepresent and they don't even start to weigh against the pervasive injustice towomen and minorities and the narrow-minded smugness that were so prevalent inthe 1950's.

The Right Stuff

Alan Shepard:         Glenn Scott
John Glenn:            Ed Harris
Glennis Yeager:       Barbara Hershey
Gordon Cooper:     Dennis Quaid
Trudy Cooper:        Pamela Reed
Chuck Yeager        Sam Shepard 
Pancho Barnes:       Kim Stanley
Gus Grissom:          Fred Ward
Betty Grissom:        Veronica Cartwright
Lyndon Johnson:     Donald Moffat
Jack Ridley (also narrator): Levon Helm
Scott Carpenter:     Charles Frank

This film deals with the early years of supersonic flight and continuesthrough the end of the Mercury program. In addition to the cast above,Chuck Yeager had a bit part and Jeff Goldblum, very early in his career, playedone of the NASA astronaut recruiters.

The film opens with a black and white, newsreel-like account of an unsuccessful attempt to breakthe sound barrier. Chuck Yeager is recruited for the next attempt, butbreaks a rib in a horseback-riding accident. His lifelong friend Jack Ridleyengineers a broomstick for him to close the aircraft door with, and the rest ishistory (and it's true). Many of the scenes at Edwards take place at Pancho's, abar and dude ranch that was a popular gathering place for the pilots, wives andgirl friends (especially girl friends. Read Wolfe's book for a very colorfuldescription of the social scene at Edwards in the early 1950's).

The film jumps to 1953 as Gordon Cooper, looking like the archetypical 1950'shot-rodder, arrives at Edwards Air Force Base. At a backyard barbecue, we seethe completely different perspectives of the pilots and their wives. The pilotsmostly think flying is the greatest fun imaginable, the wives are haunted by thehigh accident rate.

We jump forward to Star City, Russia on October 4, 1957, and the launch ofSputnik I. We see the first appearance of several recurring symbols in the film:the flame-distorted laughing face of Nikita Krushchev at every Soviet success,the feet of a running aide in Washington who bursts into a meeting with newsonly to be told "we know," and the delineation of Lyndon B. Johnsonand Werner von Braun as buffoons. LBJ asks how the Russians got ahead of us,with German scientists? Von Braun replies "our Germans are better than theirGermans," thus perpetuating the long-discredited myth that Germanscientists had anything to do with the Soviet space program. Several ratherludicrous candidates for space travel are considered but Eisenhower insists ontest pilots. This concept raises concern among the bureaucrats, since testpilots are a notoriously independent breed that many consider unsuitable.

NASA sends two astronaut scouts to Edwards, including Jeff Goldblum in a veryearly bit role. Yeager and Scott Crossfield liken the proposed space program to Spam in a can.The recruiters begin to suspect that the test pilots are indeed too independent.Grissom andCooper, however, realize there are a lot of up and coming test pilots aftertheir jobs, and agree to try out. The recruiters also have their eye on Marineflier John Glenn (Ed Harris) whom we see first on a TV quiz show.

The astronauts are put through a rigorous and frequently hilarious testingprogram. Bear in mind that in the late 1950's nobody had a clue what physicaland mental qualities would be needed for space travel. The final announcement ismade April 9, 1959. To control media attention, NASA makes its stillcontroversial deal with Time/life that all stories would be cleared with NASAbefore publication.

While the astronauts are training, there is a seemingly endless series oflaunch failures. Also the astronauts' private lives jeopardize the public imageNASA is trying to protect. At one point two attractive women enter a bar saying "Four down,three to go." Next morning Glenn reads the riot act to the rest of theastronauts. In the ensuing argument, the astronauts all realize the central issue is gainingsome degree of control over the mission. The astronauts see themselves doing thesame tasks as monkeys. In a confrontation with von Braun, they insist on changes that will allow the pilots to maneuver the spacecraft and gain control in caseof emergency.

Cut back to Yeager at Edwards. Although Yeager and his breed play no role inthe space program, they continue to advance flight. They prefer the personal,hands-on challenge of flying aircraft to the more glamorous but impersonal worldof the space program. The film cuts back and forth between these two branches ofevolution throughout.

Again we see the flame-distorted laughing face of Nikita Krushchev, this timeat the launch of Yuri Gagarin, and again we see the feet of the running aidebursting into a meeting only to be told "we know,"  Shepard'slaunch takes place on May 5, 1961. Eric Sevareid, a veteran newscaster whoactually covered many of these flights, plays himself in the film. A gloomychaplain, who we first saw at Edwards Air Force base, also turns up at thelaunch as another recurring symbol. The idea of the astronaut as mere cargo wasstill so entrenched that Shepard was forced to urinate in suit because therewere no other provisions. On July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom makes his flight. His hatch blows open, the capsule sinks (it was located and raised in 1999) and the film hints (as many suspected) that Grissom panicked and blew the hatch prematurely. In any event there is no ticker tape parade, no lunch at the WhiteHouse, no meeting with the Kennedys.

Outside Edwards Air Force Base, Pancho's burns down. This otherwise minor incident plays as a symbol of the end of the "Wild West days" of freedom and fun at Edwards.

Once again we see the running aide, this time futilely announcing the launchof Gherman Titov. With pressure mounting to get a U.S. manned orbital flight,the decision is made to use the Atlas booster, which had a fairly unreliablerecord up to that point. Glenn agrees to volunteer. LBJ waits outside the Glenn home, anxious to get a photo op with Mrs. Glenn. However, Annie Glenn suffers from a speech impediment and refuses. Then the launch is cancelled. LBJ sees a golden opportunity to get a photo op by consoling a disappointed Mrs. Glenn, but she still refuses an interview. So LBJ calls the program director, who puts Glenn on the phone to his wife. Glenn backs his wife. When the director hints he might find another astronaut, the other Mercury astronauts close ranks behind Glenn and say "who are you going to get?" LBJ throws a temper tantrum in his limo. Again the film contrasts the infantile behavior of LBJ and the cravenness of the program director with the fierce independence and loyalty of Glenn for his wife, and the astronauts for one another.

Glenn's flight finally occurs on February 20, 1962. Much of the ground action takes place in Australia, where Gordon Cooper mans a communications dish. The launch sequence is set to Gustav Holst's The Planets, with "Mars"at the launch, the triumphant "Jupiter"  as the craft heads into space, then the mysterious "Neptune" as the craft enters orbit. The special effects in space are surrealistic and impressionistic rather than literally accurate. Glenn sees lights on the ground as Perth, Australia greets him (this was a tradition for the early launches). Outside the communications site, several aborigines conduct rites of their own for Glenn's safety, a grand juxtaposition of the ancient and modern that is oddly effective and a real high point of the film. Thanks to a malfunction (it turns out, in a sensor), there isconcern that Glenn's heat shield may be loose, and he re-enters in a tensesequence with his retro-rockets still attached for reinforcement. The film cutsabruptly to the triumphant ticker-tape parade in New York that followed. Americafinally has a man in orbit.

Technical note: during re-entry, the intense heat strips electrons off atomsin the air and creates an ionized (electrically conducting) sheath around thespacecraft. No radio signals can get in or out at this time. Blackout isunavoidable, but it is also a very tense time because it is the most criticaltime of re-entry. If anything goes wrong there is no way to know it or help. Thetenseness of blackout plays a role both in this film and in Apollo 13.

We return to Yeager trying to beat a record set by the Russians for greatest altitude froma ground takeoff. The narrative cuts to LBJ hosting a rally with the astronautscelebrating the opening of the Houston space center. Absolutely no effort iswasted portraying the shallowness and piggishness of the crowd. When a reporterpresses Cooper for an answer to the question who is the best pilot he's everknown, Cooper, in a rare moment of introspection, begins musing about his fellowastronauts, other pilots at Edwards, and those who have been killed. He finallysenses that the mediais simply not interested, so Cooper finally tosses off a glib response that he'sthe best pilot. The film cuts back to Yeager taking off, the back to Houston fora dance by Sally Rand, an exotic dancer who even then was geriatric. The obviousintent is to juxtapose the heroism of Yeager and the astronauts with the totalcrassness and vulgarity of the crowd at Houston. The astronauts are obviouslyembarrassed, bored, and disgusted by the whole scene. We cut back to Yeagerhaving a malfunction and free falling twenty miles. He bails out, and when he'spicked up we see his burning plane in the distance with Yeager marching on,burned, battered, but determined.

The film ends on May 15, 1963 with Cooper's launch, the last of the MercuryProgram. Cooper was asleep on the pad and had to be awakened for launch. As therocket ascends, the narrator describes the death of Gus Grissom in 1967 andnotes that Gordon Cooper, for a short while, flew higher, faster, and fartherthan anybody else. He was also the last American ever to go into space alone.

The film's sympathies are crystal-clear. The pilots and astronauts, theirwives, and the crews that keep them airborne, are heroes; politicians and administrators are crass, vulgar and stupid. Tom Wolfeis a keen social observer with a wicked sense of irony and a deep-seatedloathing of phonies, and there's a very DoctorStrangelove flavor to the way politics and the media are portrayed -caricatured to the very borderline of excess but not that fatal inch more. Althoughthe film doesn't hesitate to portray Lyndon Johnson as a crude, immature oaf,the German scientist who obviously symbolizes (and even looks like) Werner vonBraun is never mentioned by name. The film vividly portrays the danger anddifficulty of early supersonic flight and space travel, but because of thesatirical elements, it should not be taken too literally as a source ofhistorical fact.

Apollo 13

Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, and directed by Ron Howard. It doesn't getmuch better than this. Braveheart was a great movie, but I think thisfilm should have gotten Best Picture. The book is based on The Lost Moonby Jim Lovell. This is the most historically meticulous of the three films. Thelaunch sequences are so realistic I thought they were digitally enhanced NASAfootage, but they are all studio special effects. This was also the firstfeature film to be filmed in real zero-gravity. A number of scenes were filmedaboard a NASA aircraft (affectionately nicknamed the "vomit comet")used for zero-gravity training.

Jim Lovell: Tom Hanks
Jack Swigert: Kevin Bacon
Fred Hayes: Bill Paxton
Ken Mattingly: Gary Sinise
Gene Kranz: Ed Harris
Marilyn Lovell: Kathleen Quinlan
John Young: Ben Marley

The film opens at the home of Jim Lovell during the landing of Apollo 11. Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly are already deep in preparation for their flight on Apollo 14.

We skip ahead to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy on October 30,1969, where Lovell is hosting a VIP visit. One asks "Why go, now that we've beaten the Russians?" Later, Lovell is informed that Alan Shepard has developed an ear infection, and the Apollo 14 crew is bumped up to fly Apollo 13. 

We see the crew three months prior to launch, in training and get a view of Lovell's perfectionism. In a nightmare scene, Lovell's son asks if the Apollo 8 fire could happen again. Lovell reassures him "we fixed it." His wife announces she is thinking of not going to the launch. 

At an April 7, 1970, news conference, the media joke about "Lucky 13,"and make references to public apathy over a "routine" flight. Lovell announces it will be his last flight. On April 9, the Saturn V rolls out. Astronaut Charlie Duke hasgotten the measles, and Ken Mattingly was exposed. Faced with a choice ofbumping a crew member or having the entire crew bumped, Lovell reluctantlydecides to bump Mattingly. Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) is moved up. Lovellinforms Mattingly, who is angry but powerless. 

Tension appears between Lovell and Haise on the one hand, and Swigert on the other. In a simulator flight, Swigert burns up the spacecraft on re-entry when controllers throw in a false indicator light at the worst possible moment. Lingering doubts are planted about Swigert's abilities as a pilot. This is the one serious departure from fact in the film. In reality there was no tension among the crew. 

On April 10, 1970, the evening before launch, Lovell's wife shows up and greets him as he heads for the crew quarters. Dawn on April 11 shows pre-flight physicals and a series of omens. Lovell's wife, while taking a shower drops her wedding ring down the drain. Gene Kranz at Houston gets his customary "lucky vest" from his wife. Ken Mattingly watches the launch from a distance.

The center engine cuts off prematurely, prompting Lovell to quip "we just had our glitch for this mission." but the problem can be surmounted by running the other engines a bit longer. The engines shut down and Lovell says "and that, gentlemen, is how we do that." The ship enters orbit and zero gravity and Lovell announces "okay guys, we're going to the moon." The Command Module and Lunar Module separate for transposition and docking and one of the crew develops space sickness. We hear Holst's "Neptune" again, an unofficial anthem of space films. The  docking is tense, implying, falsely, that the crew had doubts about Swigert as a pilot. 

Technical notes: 
    The Lunar Module was behind the Command Module at launch. Thebroad base of the Apollo capsule was the heat shield and the main hatch was atthe point of the cone. The Command Module had to separate from the upper stage,turn around, dock with the Lunar Module, then extract it from the upper stage.
    About half of all astronauts suffer space sickness,apparently from the disorientation caused by zero gravity. Nobody quite knowswhy, and there is no apparent way to predict who will get it and who won't.

Day 3, April 13, is so routine all the networks did notbother to broadcast the astronaut's video from space. Lovell's aged and senile motheris disappointed and puzzled. On Apollo 13, Swigert realizes he forgot to file histax return. Gene Kranz from Mission Control asks about fuel stirs. Swigertstarts to stir the oxygen tanks and chaos erupts. Lovell broadcasts the famouswords "Houston, we have a problem." The film vividly captures thesense of chaos as the crew and ground control struggle to figure out what wentwrong and gain control. Ground control realizes something serious is happeningwhen the biomedical sensors show the astronauts' heart rates skyrocketing. Telemetry from the ship is scrambled, butthe astronauts report they are venting something, and ground telemetry shows theship losing oxygen and power.

Technical note: Much of the power on the Apollo missions was provided by fuelcells which combined hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity, with water as aby-product. This approach has the benefit that the oxygen can also be used forlife support, and so can the water. But a lost oxygen tank endangered not justlife support, but spacecraft power as well.

The astronauts are told to shut down their fuel cells. Shutting down the fuel cell valves means no landing onthe moon. Lovell notes "we just lost the moon." If this measure doesn't stem the loss ofoxygen, there won't be enough power to get home. The astronauts are instructed to move to the LunarModule and power down. Before doing so, they have to transfer all their computerdata to the Lunar Module computer. With power dropping fast, they are underintense time pressure. The last act is to transfer their guidance program inthe15 minutes of power remaining. We see a quaint close-up of a slide rule beingused to check figures. (In reality a slide rule was and is a very effectivetool, very fast and giving 3-4 figures accuracy, thus avoiding the appearance ofexcess accuracy so common with calculators.)

A news bulletin signals the problem to the outside world. We see tense homescenes with the astronauts' families. In space, the astronauts find it hard to stabilizethe ship from the Lunar Module. The astronauts prepare to move into the LunarModule, live off its resources, and shut down the Command Module. Hanks replies"this is Odyssey signing off." NASA argues about a direct abort versusa free return. The issue is safety versus time. A direct abort would get themback sooner, but with the damage unknown, it is not clear that the main enginecan fire without exploding. Gene Kranz decrees "we are not losing those men."Apollo 13 is left to coast around the moon. Lovell is called to the window to see Mt.Marilyn but replies "I've seen it" (he flew Apollo 8 and named itthen). The astronauts fantasize a landing with Earth on horizon (not realistic -from all Apollo landing sites the earth was nearly overhead.) Only 56 miles frommoon, Swigert and Haise muse that they could take the lander down, to whichLovell replies "I'd like to go home." After their last rocket burn,the spacecraft is totally shut down, creating a problem: how do theypower back up? The problem is that if the power drain becomes too great thecomputer will be fried. Kranz announces that failure is not an option. Ken Mattinglymoves to the simulator and reproduces the exact conditions and equipment aboardApollo 13. Aboard Apollo 13 the crew shuts down. Lovell notes "we just putSir Isaac Newton in the drivers seat."

A potentially lethal problem arises as carbon dioxide begins to build up onthe ship. The main carbon dioxide scrubbers are on the Command Module, and theydon't fit the scrubbers on the Lunar Module. NASA begins a frantic effort todevise a way to fix the problem. Duct tape, that marvelous material, plays aprominent role. Tension rises on the ship rises as the crew expresses suspicionsagainst NASA and each other, and erupt into arguments. NASA radios instructionsfor the jury rigged oxygen scrubber to the crew and the carbon dioxide levelbegins to drop. 

On the ground, Mattingly is still trying to devise a solution to the powerproblem. When asked if he needs a break, he replies "if they dont get one Idon' t get one." Lovell's mother is told there could be a problem andresponds "if they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it."The crew is informed that President Nixon has granted Swigert an  extension onhis income taxes. Haise' temperature hits104, and when Houston registersconcern, Lovell rips off the biomedical sensors. He and Swigert follow suit. Thecrew is told their path is coming in too shallow; they have to fire the enginesfor a corrective burn but can't power up. 

Technical note: re-entering Apollo spacecraft had to enter the atmosphere ata precise angle. If they come in too steep the spacecraft will decelerate toorapidly. The crew could lose consciousness from the deceleration forces, beinjured or killed, and the spacecraft could burn up from atmospheric friction.If the spacecraft comes in at too shallow an angle, it will skip off the top ofthe atmosphere back into space. It may eventually return to earth, but notbefore the oxygen runs out.

Lovell has to fly manually using the earthas his reference point. The film cuts to a TV news broadcast to explain some ofthe technical points. The spacecraft is hard to hold during the burn but themaneuver works. On the ground, Mattingly continues to struggle to find power to runthe ship. In an interlude, we see an interview with Lovell, where he tells of anincident in the Korean War where his plane lost instruments and lights. He sawphosphorescence on the ocean in the wake of his aircraft carrier and was able touse it to return to his ship. He muses that some apparent problems actually aresolutions in disguise. The film cuts back to Mattingly, who has the inspirationof using power from the Lunar Module to supplement the Command Module, thereverse of the normal situation. It works.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin join Lovell's mother, who asks innocently"are you boys with the space program too?" There is concern at NASAabout short circuiting due to condensation, but there is nothing to be done except wait and see what happens. NASA controllers realize the capsule is traveling too shallow a path because it is underweight. It is not carrying its expected load of moon rocks in the Command Module. The astronauts are told to move ballast to the Command Module to compensate. The tense power-up succeeds,but a new danger appears. There is a typhoon warning on the edge of the prime recovery zone. The astronauts jettison the Service Module, and for the firsttime see the damage. There is concern for damage to the heat shield. The filmcuts to scenes showing world concern. The astronauts prepare to jettison theLunar Module. Lovell gets into pilot seat out of force of habit, then turns it over toSwigert. Swigert explains what a prominent No tag on the console meant. It covered the switch that cut the LEM loose so that he wouldn't trip it by mistake while the other astronauts were still in it.

A technician tells Gene Kranz the path of the spacecraft is still shallowing. Kranz replies "can we do anything?" and when the answer comes back no,replies "then they don't need to know." A nervous bureaucrat wonders if this might be NASA's worst disaster, to which Kranz replies he thinks it will be NASA's finest hour.-The scene shifts to the USS Iwo Jima in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970. We see the capsule re-entering above the typhoon that was causing concern about the landing. The spacecraft enters blackout and all the condensed moisture in the capsule falls as rain at 10 g's. The tension mounts as the capsule fails to reply, then cheers erupt as the capsule appears on the TV screens. Gene Kranz becomes visibly emotional.

The final words from the capsule are "this is Apollo 13 signing off."As the crew is shown arriving on the Iwo Jima, Toms Hanks delivers the epilogue. The problem was traced to a damaged heating coil. The defect had happened 2 years earlier when the voltage in the spacecraft was upgraded but nobody thought to upgrade the heating coil. It overheated the oxygen and caused the tank to explode. Fred Haise never got the measles, and his flight, Apollo 18, was cancelled. Jack Swigert was elected to Congress but died of cancer before taking office. Ken Mattingly orbited the moon on Apollo 16 and flew the Space Shuttle. Tom Hanks' final thoughts: "when will we go back?"

The only serious historical discrepancy in the film is the tension between Lovell and Haise on the one hand and Swigert on the other. The astronauts train with everyone else and at no time did the crew of Apollo 13 doubt Swigert's capabilities.

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Created 13 January 1998, Last Update Last Update 15 January 2020