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Cinema Peer Review: How Accurate Was Apollo 13?

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If you weren’t around for the events of Apollo 13, you might have seen the film dramatization of it. But just how accurate was the Apollo 13 movie? We took a look at the evidence, and as it turns out, the movie scores pretty high on accuracy. But it is not completely without flaws.

Director Ron Howard devoted a considerable amount of energy into recreating the setting as accurately as possible. Exact replicas of the Apollo 13 modules and control rooms were built, and Howard filmed zero-gravity scenes in 25-second bursts on the same KC-135 airplane NASA used to train astronauts. The plane (sometimes known informally as the “Vomit Comet”) flies in steep parabolas, creating a sensation of weightlessness at certain points in the flight path. Altogether, the cast and crew spent nearly four hours weightless. Science writer Jeff Kluger—who, along with Apollo 13 mission commander Jim Lovell, wrote the book the movie was based on—worked as a consultant on the film.

The commitment shows, as the reaction from real astronauts to “Apollo 13” was near-universal approval. “It’s really amazing,” Lovell told the New York Times shortly after the movie’s premiere in 1995. “Everything. The instrument panels, the console switches. That’s exactly what it looks like inside.”

A lot of the tense plot points in the movie are true to life. One consequence of the accident was that the astronauts had to take shelter in the lunar module, where carbon dioxide began to build up. The NASA engineers on the ground had to find a way to fit square canisters from the command module into the round openings inside the lunar module, using only materials that would be available to the astronauts on the spacecraft. The solution was a jury-rigged device dubbed a “mailbox:” The astronauts took a hose off of one of the spacesuits, rigged it to one of the command module canisters, and connected it to the lunar module socket using cardboard, tape and plastic bags.

The film’s sins against strict accuracy are all pretty minor, and well within the bounds of artistic license. Time is compressed or expanded for clarity or to create tension, and some characters are composites. There’s a subplot about a conflict between lunar module pilot Fred Haise and command module pilot Jack Swigert that’s largely fictional. But there are a few places where the cinematic events differ on key technical details:

1) None of the Apollo 13 astronauts actually said “Houston, we have a problem.”

Quibbling over word choice might seem extremely nit-picky. But given that “Houston, we have a problem” has become number 50 on an American Film Institute list of top movie quotes in all American cinema, it’s definitely up for critique.

In the movie, Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) delivers the tagline after one of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks explodes en route to the moon. But transcripts of the audio recordings from the actual mission show that shortly after the explosion, Haise started to say “Okay, Houston—” and Swigert interrupted with: “I believe we’ve had a problem here.” Ground control asked the astronauts to repeat, and Lovell then said “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

For the film, Hanks reportedly suggested slightly altering the phrase to get the immediate urgency of the situation across.

2) The dark side of the moon isn’t the same as the far side.

There’s an arresting moment in the film where Apollo 13 simultaneously passes into the shadow of the moon and loses contact with Earth because it was going around “to the dark side.” But in reality, it didn’t quite happen like that.

The “dark side of the moon” isn’t always dark. Though the moon is tidally locked to Earth, and the same face is always turned toward us, the far side of the moon gets about just as much sunlight as the near side. (Picture what the far side would look like when the moon eclipses the sun during a solar eclipse, for example.) The “dark side of the moon” and the “far side of the moon” are the same side only during a full moon, and during the Apollo 13 mission, the moon was only half full. The craft was already in the moon’s shadow before it passed behind the moon and lost communication with Mission Control.

A similar moon-related error comes at the point in the movie when Haise (Bill Paxton) points out Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquility) where the Apollo 11 astronauts took their first steps. But the shot of the moon in this scene actually shows Palus Putredinis (the Marsh of Decay) and the Hadley Rille (the future landing site of Apollo 15).

3) The reentry problem was much bigger than moon rocks.

In the film, before Apollo 13 reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, Mission Control tells the crew their course towards Earth is shallower than it should be, because they hadn’t collected hundreds of pounds of moon rocks as expected.

While the real spacecraft was coming in at a shallower angle than usual, this wasn’t a weight issue (Galileo could have told you that differences in weights don’t affect the rate of falling in a vacuum). What actually happened was that Apollo 13 was carrying an unexpected piece of baggage on its return flight: the lunar module, which was supposed to be left on the moon. And the cooling system of the lunar module turned out to be sending water vapor out behind the craft, creating an unexpected force that knocked Apollo 13 a little bit off course, requiring another engine burn to correct the course.

Accuracy Rating:

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  1. […] Apollo 13 is a movie based on the events of Apollo 13 lunar mission of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. Initially everything seems to go according to plan after leaving Earth’s orbit. However, when the oxygen tank explodes, the scheduled moon landing is cancelled. Tension within the crew and numerous technical issues threaten both their lives and their safe return to Earth. There is large controversy around the fact that none of the astronauts actually said “Houstan, we have a problem” the very iconic line. But on the other hand it has been highly complimented on the sets as according to one of the astronauts himself the inside of the shuttle looked exactly how the original look including all the switch panels and what not. When the movie premiered in 1995 it got outstanding reviews. According to a critic “Apollo 13 is the most accurate cinematic depiction of a NASA mission I’ve seen. It is a great film, and much loved by NASA” […]

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