Apollo 13 (1995)
June 22, 2021 8:35 AM - Subscribe

The true story of technical troubles that scuttle the Apollo 13 lunar mission in 1970, risking the lives of astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew, with the failed journey turning into a thrilling saga of heroism. Drifting more than 200,000 miles from Earth, the astronauts work furiously with the ground crew to avert tragedy.

Ebert

New York Times

Solzy at the Movies, on the 25th anniversary

The AV Club, on the 25th anniversary, focusing on special effects

The AV Club, in April 2021

James A Lovell gives an account of the real event

And, while you're here, go ahead and watch the absolute best scene about engineering in the history of all cinema.
posted by meese (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the Star Trek threads on the purple, "competence porn" is the name for the go-to Trek plot where the crew of whatever ship or station works out a solution to the problem of the week, often by MacGyvering a solution out of whatever is at hand. The real life story of Apollo 13, and especially that scene in the last link, is authentic competence porn.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:17 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]


Apollo 13 is a great movie. The scenes at Mission Control are very well crafted. The stuff aboard the spacecraft looks totally real. Tom, Kevin, and Bill all do great work. The one flaw that always tends to bother me is how Tom's Lovell can be a buzzkill at times. The scene in particular where this stands out is when they are going around the Moon and Fred and Jack are filming and taking pictures and talking about going prospecting. Jim's line bringing them metaphorically back to earth seems so artificial in the moment.

Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan really stand out in this movie.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:28 AM on June 22


My feelings about Apollo 13 are conflicted. On one hand, it is a movie that I will more often than not watch to the end if I come across it while channel surfing. On the other hand, the whole movie feels a touch overbaked, especially after those repeat viewings. Halloween Jack mentions "competence porn." He's right that the real life story of Apollo 13 is a great example of authentic competence porn. But for me, the movie condenses it down a little too much so that it is loses that authenticity.
posted by Stuka at 9:43 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


And, while you're here, go ahead and watch the absolute best scene about engineering in the history of all cinema.

There is a story I occasionally tell about having to come up with a replacement phone sound effect for a play I was working on, when the original plan fell through, with only two minutes' warning and in the middle of the show. Whenever I tell that story, I always compare that initial look around myself in the booth to feeling like one of those engineers in this scene.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:45 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]


This is a film right around the start of the period (that we are still in) where it became hard to see Tom Hanks playing a role and it became, "Oh, Tom Hanks is an astronaut this week, oh now he's a pilot, oh now he's a ship captain, oh now he's a secret agent." It's too bad because Tom Hanks is a likeable guy and a decent enough actor. He just can't disappear into a role (for me). He's just too Tom Hanksy.

But other than that distraction, it's a well-crafted movie that keeps things simple and direct. That may knock out all the complexity for viewers who could handle it, but it means that even kids and people who don't have any background in the space program aren't confused. I think overall that's an asset.

It's hard not to make the whole agency a hero, though. Hidden Figures would be a good double feature with this to show that NASA was not an unproblematic workplace. Are there movies about the Challenger and Columbia disasters? It would be hard to avoid making the agency a villain in those, when of course the reality of any human institution is a mixed bag of good and bad, which is much harder to dramatize. I love reading books about the space program, which is a format much more suited to conveying complex information and mixed results. But I can't not love a good SPACE! movie.
posted by rikschell at 9:56 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]


By the way, if you haven't read Lovell's book (called either Lost Moon or Apollo 13), I strongly recommend it. You get more detail, backstory, all that good stuff.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:35 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]


Are there movies about the Challenger and Columbia disasters? It would be hard to avoid making the agency a villain in those, when of course the reality of any human institution is a mixed bag of good and bad, which is much harder to dramatize

Though the story is entirely fictional, I think "The Martian" does this pretty well. Jeff Daniels rides the edge between guy who is pulling for the team and administrator who has to be an asshole about stuff pretty well.

To me, the thing that makes this movie great is that you know exactly how it turned out in real life, and yet you are still on the edge of your seat during the radio blackout sequence.
posted by briank at 10:58 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]


Are there movies about the Challenger and Columbia disasters?

The Netflix documentary series Challenger: The Final Flight is the only one I'm aware of.

Anyways, love this movie and will always watch it when its on. Great cast, but the suggestion above about pairing it with Hidden Figures is a good one - NASA is nothing but a bunch of white men here.
posted by nubs at 11:26 AM on June 22


"Oh, Tom Hanks is an astronaut this week, oh now he's a pilot, oh now he's a ship captain, oh now he's a secret agent."

Worked at Blockbuster when this hit video shelves. One morning an elderly woman was returning the tape and mentioned that she'd watched it with her grandson, who had observed: "No wonder they had so much trouble. Forrest Gump was driving!"
posted by radwolf76 at 11:51 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


The one flaw that always tends to bother me is how Tom's Lovell can be a buzzkill at times. The scene in particular where this stands out is when they are going around the Moon and Fred and Jack are filming and taking pictures and talking about going prospecting

I just can't understand this scene, and I wish I had a better grasp on what Lovell's motivation is supposed to be. Is he just lashing out, because he's disappointed he doesn't get to walk on the moon? Is he worried that their enthusiasm somehow puts them in greater jeopardy? It feels like such a strange, off moment, in a movie that otherwise is so perfectly emotionally structured... I don't get it.
posted by meese at 11:53 AM on June 22


Are there movies about the Challenger and Columbia disasters?

There's quite a decent one centered around Richard Feynman on the Rogers Commission after the Challenger disaster, and wildly enough the full thing is on Youtube. I think I've recommended it on here before.
posted by figurant at 12:00 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


On the (tangential) subject of "Apollo fixing things competence porn" and "The Martian" I wish I knew who said it first but my favourite characterization ran something like:
"You know that scene from Apollo 13 where they had to fix the ship with nothing but that pile of stuff on the table? Yeah it's like that but that's the whole movie"
And, yes, that's why I enjoyed it so much. I want to watch people be amazing, do amazing things, mess it up a bit maybe but actually be good at what they're doing. I can watch people screw up regular piddly stuff everyday.
posted by mce at 12:33 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I'm not much of a fan of Ron Howard's films in general but his un-ironic and somewhat sentimental style was just perfect for this project. The script is great and basically keeps to Lovel's account and the cast is amazing, especially Harris. That re-entry scene still gives me a lump in my throat every time I see it.
posted by octothorpe at 12:42 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I just can't understand this scene, and I wish I had a better grasp on what Lovell's motivation is supposed to be.

My hunch over the years is that the scene and Jim's line there is supposed to be some kind of emotional moment where Jim has been looking at the Moon and what it means to him not getting to land, but his words to Fred and Jack are some kind of release point where he is putting it all behind him and conveying that he is ready to go home.

It's a nice thought I suppose, but the line as written and delivered by Hanks just seems so artificial, like they were kicking around the screenplay and wanted to stick in something to indicate, "Let's bring it on home."
posted by Fukiyama at 1:07 PM on June 22


mce, it was xkcd - https://xkcd.com/1536/
posted by flaterik at 1:25 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


The scene with the air filters also inspired one of my favorite reality shows, "Junkyard Wars".
posted by octothorpe at 1:30 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]


Re: The scene in particular where this stands out is when they are going around the Moon and Fred and Jack are filming and taking pictures and talking about going prospecting.

My own take on this scene is that it is supposed be yet another demonstration that the Lovell/Hanks composite character is the consummate professional who has to get his Moonstruck comrades back on track. Competence porn, as if we needed to be reminded that Lovell/Hanks has The Right Stuff.
posted by Stuka at 1:48 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


My own take on this scene is that it is supposed be yet another demonstration that the Lovell/Hanks composite character is the consummate professional who has to get his Moonstruck comrades back on track.

From the trivia for the movie:

The line that Jim Lovell asked his crewmates, "Gentlemen, what are your intentions? Mine are to go home." needs some context. While Lovell actually said this, it seems slightly forced and out of place. This is because when he said it on the mission, they were just coming out of from the far side of the moon and had a critical engine burn coming up. Since it was Jack Swigert and Fred Haise's first mission, they were taking pictures instead of preparing for the burn. That's why Lovell said the line, adding, "If we don't get home, you won't be able to have your pictures developed."
posted by nubs at 2:40 PM on June 22 [6 favorites]


It's at the end of chapter 9 of the book. The far side of the moon was dark, so they couldn't see anything until they came back around. They had a "PC+2" burn coming up 2 hours after the closest moon pass (to get back quicker), and after waiting a little bit eventually he wanted to get their attention and get them back working on the burn.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:14 PM on June 22


What Caused the Apollo 13 Accident?

The series of events that led to Apollo 13’s life-and-death drama began five years earlier with a simple design change to the Apollo spacecraft.

During flight, the systems aboard the command and service modules were designed to operate at 28 volts. In 1965, however, it became clear that during preflight tests at the Kennedy Space Center, 65 volts would be used. That year, engineers at North American directed that the craft's electrical components be redesigned to accept both levels of voltage.

But one crucial participant never got word of the change.

Within the service module were two tanks of liquid oxygen. Oxygen from these tanks was used not only for the astronauts to breathe, but to help run three fuel cells that provided electrical power to run the command ship's many systems.

Inside each oxygen tank was a thermostat which, along with a heater, was used to regulate the temperature inside the tank. It was the manufacturer of this thermostat that never learned of the need to accept 65 volts of electricity.

All things being equal, that might not have been a problem. In fact, the oxygen tanks used on all previous Apollo missions had flown without trouble. But the Number 2 oxygen tank aboard Apollo 13 did have a slightly tarnished history.

In October 1968, the Number 2 tank eventually used on Apollo 13 was at the North American Aviation plant in Downey, California. There, technicians who were handling the tank accidentally dropped it about two inches. After testing the tank, they concluded the incident hadn't caused any detectable damage.

The dropped tank was eventually cleared for flight and installed in Apollo 13. The tank passed all of its routine prelaunch tests. But at the end of March 1970, after a practice session called the Countdown Demonstration Test, ground crews tried to empty the tank -- and couldn’t.

The small tube used to fill and empty the tank of its super-cold contents had been damaged by the mishandling almost two years earlier.

To get around the problem, workers turned on heaters inside the tank to warm up the remaining liquid oxygen, turning it into gas that could then be vented to the outside. The thermostat inside the tank was supposed to prevent the temperature from exceeding 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Centigrade).

But as the temperature inside the tank rose, the thermostat was activated, and the oversight from 1965 came into play. The resulting surge of electricity at 65 volts caused the 28-volt thermostat to weld shut. Technicians failed to notice the situation, and during the procedure to empty the tank, temperatures inside rose to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Centigrade). The intense heat damaged some insulation on wiring inside the tank.

No one knew it, but when Apollo 13 lifted off, it carried the makings of a small bomb inside its service module.

The "bomb" was triggered on the evening of April 13 when ground controllers asked Jack Swigert to turn on the fans inside the service module's two liquid-oxygen tanks, as a way of stirring the contents, to allow more accurate quantity readings.

When the fan inside the Number 2 tank was turned on, the damaged wiring caused a spark, starting a fire inside the oxygen tank.

With pure oxygen feeding the fire, the pressure inside quickly grew to the point where the tank burst open, at the same time damaging much of the other plumbing inside the densely packed service module and crippling the spacecraft.

In the wake of Apollo 13, engineers redesigned the oxygen tanks to prevent similar accidents. Also, a third oxygen tank was added to the service module, as an additional backup. Eight more Apollo spacecraft flew and none of them experienced the same trouble again.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:59 PM on June 22 [17 favorites]


An Apollo 13 factoid (TikTok video) that went viral recently. Confirmation of it's veracity (Snopes).

I'm not much of a fan of Ron Howard's films in general but his un-ironic and somewhat sentimental style was just perfect for this project. The script is great and basically keeps to Lovel's account and the cast is amazing, especially Harris. That re-entry scene still gives me a lump in my throat every time I see it.

Ron Howard's daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, directed an episode of The Mandalorian, and included a little tribute to her dad (his reaction).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:10 AM on June 23 [8 favorites]


the cast is amazing, especially Harris.

Harris is so fixed in my mind in that role that I had real trouble accepting Eric Laden as Kranz in For All Mankind.
posted by nubs at 8:44 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]


If you are a fan of this movie, I highly recommend Brady Heywood’s podcast series on Apollo 13, which covers the real event in exhaustive engineering detail. He also discusses things (and people) the movie omitted, elided or combined.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:20 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of NASA-centric movies whether the subject is fictional or real. This is one of my favorites and I like The Martian about as much, likely because of the competence porn angle and the excellent acting in both.

The scene in the prep school where the class is watching and waiting with Lovell's son is so well done and gets me every time even after many, many viewings. I also always get a little giddy when actual Lovell shows up for a few seconds and shakes movie Lovell's hand.

Harris is so fixed in my mind in that role that I had real trouble accepting Eric Laden as Kranz in For All Mankind.

That's funny because as a big fan of The Right Stuff it took me a while to get over the fact that John Glenn was Flight Director for some reason.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 12:11 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]


All in all, I enjoyed the movie a lot and really appreciated that it was a movie about smart people getting stuff done.

However, as a 20 something black man when the movie came out, I was keenly aware of the sea of white faces, along with the aching knowledge that there were very capable people who looked just like me (though perhaps not a handsome) who weren't allowed to be part of the team. That's the only thing that really sticks in my craw, even still, about the movie.

But damn if that launch scene isn't one of the most thrilling ever.

Fun fact about Fred Haise, the Lunar Module Pilot: He was promoted to the backup crew of Apollo 8 after a member of the prime crew, Michael Collins had to back out after surgery, bringing James Lovell from the backup to prime crew. So Haise got promoted to backup crew.

As was custom, the backup crew of mission rotated to prime crew 2 mission later, i.e. the backup crew of APollo 8 would be prime crew of Apollo 11. But Haise got bumped from that, 'cause Collins recovered and was put back on prime crew for that mission.

So Haise goes back in rotation, but gets put on prime crew for Apollo 13. But that incident. So that Haise goes back in rotation, becoming backup Commander for Apollo 16 and then would have become Commander for Apollo 19. But every flight after Apollo 17 was cancelled, so no second voyage or walking on the Moon for Haise. He was so close, so many times!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:44 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


The sfx for this film are outstanding, and I suspect it lost the Oscar for best special effects to Babe because a lot of folks thought a lot of the fx shots in Apollo 13 were actually repurposed NASA footage.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:52 PM on June 23


The missus and I watched this a few weeks back. I was startled to realize that we are now further from the 1995 release of the movie than it was from the events it depicted.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:19 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]


The Tom Hanks-produced series From the Earth to the Moon strikes some similar chords—the episode about the creation of the LEM is particularly good.

But like Apollo 13, it’s all white dudes, all the time. Somebody write me a series about Margaret Hamilton developing all of the lander software, that story needs to be told.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:18 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I was startled to realize that we are now further from the 1995 release of the movie than it was from the events it depicted.

FLAGGED AS UNPOSSIBLE
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:25 AM on June 24


it lost the Oscar for best special effects to Babe
Also lost Best Picture to bloody Braveheart. Imagine spending weeks puking in the vomit comet only to lose to Mel Gibson in a fright wig and a CGI pig.

Somebody write me a series about Margaret Hamilton developing all of the lander software
Her team in 1972 (watching the 17 splashdown) looking moderately diverse.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:10 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


But damn if that launch scene isn't one of the most thrilling ever.

If your erection lasts more than four hours, consult the cigarette-smoking space physician.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Also lost Best Picture to bloody Braveheart. Imagine spending weeks puking in the vomit comet only to lose to Mel Gibson in a fright wig and a CGI pig.

Not only was Braveheart not as good as Apollo 13, it wasn't even as good as the other Scottish Hero flick, Rob Roy!
posted by Beholder at 3:51 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


the cast is amazing, especially Harris.

Harris is so good that he's able to deliver the line "Failure is not an option" and not make it sound incredibly corny. Then there's the bit at the end of the movie when (spoiler) they live and he sits down and you can see the tension flow out of him and he's nearly crying (in the sort of "not really crying, because that wouldn't be manly" way that men didn't cry in the early 1970s).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:26 PM on June 30


The "best scene about engineering" needs the delivery scene too-- although the existence of a procedures document is more of a fantasy element.
posted by travertina at 3:06 PM on July 1


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