Movie Night: Apollo 13 and the things I learned


A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to watch one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. You know the one. Directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks and many more familiar faces, based on the real events that took place in April, 1970.

It’s still a great movie – it holds up as well as you probably remember it. The tension is incredible and the emotional moments are still very effective.

However, any time I watch something based on real life events, I’m always curious about how accurately they portray them and what artistic liberties they take or changes the filmmakers feel are necessary for other reasons. Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, simplified some of the campaigns and had a few characters who were amalgamations of several people – likely to keep down the running time and create a more streamlined story. Cool Runnings was pretty much almost entirely made up. According to one of the members of the real Jamaican bobsled team, only ‘about one percent [of the movie] is true’.

And the movie Zulu, which is one of the great screen epics in my opinion, made a few changes such as moving the location of Rorke’s Drift 90 miles south-west from its real-life location in order to get a more dramatic backdrop. It also took such liberties with its portrayal of some of the actual soldiers involved in the events it was based on that the daughter of one of these men walked out of the premiere in disgust.  And Fargo, that one we thought was based on fact before we were told it wasn’t might have been based loosely on some events after all.

So I was interested in seeing how the movie of Apollo 13 compared to the actual events. First of all, there was of course a little added drama with the astronauts arguing at moments that were merely professional discussions in real life. (From all I’ve read, it seem most astronauts are pretty good and keeping their cool in situations that would send others into a blind panic). But that’s par for the course with these things, I think. Hollywood always likes to throw in more drama.

I was a bit more surprised, though slightly disappointed, to learn that a lot of the scenes where teams on the ground were devising solutions for all the various problems facing Jim Lovell and his crew didn’t actually happen. A few of the so-called new procedures that were developed in the movie were actually existing emergency procedures that had been devised long before the mission took place. So, really, the people on the ground were testing existing procedures to make sure they understood them fully before explaining them to the astronauts in space.

But, all in all, it seemed that the movie was fairly accurate. However, in reading up on the mission and the facts surrounding it, I learned a lot of interesting things. For instance, I read about a flight controller called John Aaron who had a reputation as ‘a steely-eyed missile man’ (and there’s a nod to him in the movie). He was in the control room during the Apollo 13 mission but he was also on the ground for Apollo 12. And, as it turned out, Apollo 12 had its issues too. Taking off in a thunderstorm, it was struck by lightning twice, throwing out its telemetry readings with the result that the crew would most likely have to abort the mission… and there was only about 90 seconds in which to make the decision.

Then John Aaron, a 24 year old controller, calmly said, “Try SCE to Aux.” This was something almost no one else in the control room had heard of. Up in the command module on the end of a rocket hurtling at 6000 miles per hour, Pete Conrad – the commander of the mission – had no idea what SCE was either and it was just good fortune that his fellow astronaut Alan Bean, who remembered that system from a simulation a year ago, knew where to find the switch for it on the console panel, which was pretty damn impressive. The whole exchange took about 12 seconds. But it all worked. Systems came back online and the astronauts of Apollo 12 proceeded on their way, made it to the moon, landed, and came back safe and sound.

But it was all thanks to Aaron’s inquisitive nature, memory for details and quick thinking. He recognized Apollo 12’s garbled readings after the lightning strikes as being identical to a fault that occurred in a simulation exercise (maybe the same one Bean remembered). And fortunately for everyone involved in the Apollo 12 mission, after that simulation he’d investigated the fault, learned about that obscure system SCE and had found a way to resolve it. And, thankfully on the day Apollo 12 launched, he was there on the ground and he recognized the problem at once. Steely eyed missile man indeed!

As I was reading all about these cool-headed, quick thinking engineers, controllers and astronauts with their nerves of steel, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement and the romanticizing of the hey day of the space race. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder about the point of it all. Sure, getting a man on the surface of the moon must have really helped the US put one over the Soviet Union… after their rival launched the first satellite, had the first man in space and the first spacewalk (so I guess the moon landing brought the score to 1-4?). But looking back on it now, was it really a good use of all those resources? All those incredible minds? And was it worth putting people in extreme high-risk situations?

So I did a bit of reading up on that too to see what others thought and I came across an article that explores all the great ideas and innovations that the US put aside in order to win the race to get a man on the moon before 1970. For instance, NASA abandoned a decade’s worth of research and development into more sophisticated ways of getting into space in order to focus on getting someone to the moon as soon as possible. And the huge, fuel intensive, Saturn V rockets that were used in the Apollo missions were the result. Using incredible amounts of fuel, combined with brute force, to get people into space.

The challenges that NASA overcame in those days are nothing short of extraordinary. And there are many incredible stories to be found in the annals of the Apollo missions of bravery and ingenuity, stories with the power to inspire.

But were these Herculean efforts really worth it?


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