19 October 2013

Apollo 13: A Very Delayed Movie Review

Posted by Dan Satterfield


The interior of an Apollo Command Module. In April 1970 Astronaut Jack Swigert had to do something he never possibly imagined he would do. He turned every switch off. All of them. He, and his fellow crew members had no choice, they would die otherwise. Image from NASA

A lot of science blogs have mentioned the science errors in the film Gravity recently, but this is a movie review on Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Yes, I know the film came out 18 years ago, but better late than never! You see Gravity is a made up story, and while the errors are pretty egregious, I do not think it matters as much, because after all, it is a work of fiction!

If you’re a geek like me, you probably love the film version of Apollo 13, and the movie is indeed excellent. Parts of it recreate the real story amazingly well, and this is especially true of the those first few hours after the oxygen tank exploded. I’ll tell you in a minute how I just happen to know all of this (surely you ARE wondering that!).

That said, there’s a LOT of Hollywood conflict added in. I think the real story is even better than the movie, but first a summary of what Hollywood got wrong:

The Errors In The Movie

1. Hollywood imagined the conflict between Jack Swigert and Fred Haise over the explosion. There is no evidence that it happened, and it makes no sense to anyone with a basic understanding of the Apollo missions. This is a major knock on the movie, and IMHO Ron Howard really screwed up here.

2. The mid-course correction was also greatly enhanced, because controlling the spacecraft during the burn was not nearly as difficult as it was made out to be. There were actually 3 major burns of the lunar module descent engine and they were all critical. Hollywood only shows one.

3. The part about the crew pulling off their bio-med sensors has some truth to it ,but the main reason they turned them off was to get better radio reception and so that they could talk privately between themselves. Still, I think they may have pulled them anyhow if that were not the case. I would love to ask Haise or Lovell about that.

The first few minutes after the accident is where the movie really shines, and as I said before the actors did an amazing job of getting this part spot on. The time is compressed of course, but that’s what movies are by definition. The script here though, is almost word for word of what really happened and was said. Even the tone of the voice was captured by the actors.

So how do I know all of this??

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 12.16.53 AM

From Simon’s  Apollo 13 videos. Click the image to start with video 1.

Simon In The UK

It’s mainly thanks to a gentleman named Simon in the UK. He’s a space buff who has been taking the entire air to ground audio and putting it with video of the spacecraft configuration on You-Tube. Simon (who goes by the handle Lunar Module 5 online) has removed the dead air and compressed the entire mission, word for word to about 38 hours.

While I remember Apollo 13 clearly, Simon was only a toddler at the time and he has been a space buff like me all of his life. Here is how he put it in an email to me:

I dreamed of working for NASA in the late 70’s/early 80’s. While other kids my age were into cars and bikes, my bedroom wall was covered in posters of Saturn V’s and astronauts (along with Debbie Harry ;-))
The schools careers teacher asked me what I wanted to do as a future career in 1981….I wanted to work for NASA. He laughed!
I put the videos together, at first, for personal reasons. The complete audio of the flight became available a few years back and I knew “13” was the one I wanted to download and keep first (this isn’t an easy task – I live in the wilds of North Wales and broadband speeds are about 20 ks – If I am downloading a WAV file it can take several days!
I wanted a complete record of the flight and, knowing there was a simulator that could visually show different parts of an Apollo flight I decided to put the full mission series together with all the footage that i could find I thought it might make interesting viewing and decided to upload it to YTube. 32 parts in and still going!

I plead guilty  to all of the above as well Simon ( I had Farrah Fawcett though).

Primary Sources Of History

These tapes are what historians call a primary source. The real thing, not a recollection, or a memory; the actual event as it happened. Simon has a ton of other Apollo videos online ,and for those who are not space geeks, I thought I might add in an astro-speak dictionary to help you understand more of what the astronauts are talking about. Once you learn a few terms, then all that gibberish becomes a captivating story! The cheat sheet is mainly concerned with things that you will hear being discussed after the accident.

One last thing. As you go from video to video, it will be hard to miss the conspiracy nut videos of the so-called “Moon landing hoax”. I wish YouTube could put these all in a separate channel for the loonies. It’s so sad that we can only go into low Earth orbit now. As Neil de Grasse Tyson put it, “boldly going where hundreds have gone before!”.

The Geeks Are The Real Heroes


Lovell, Haise and Swigert just after splashdown. Fred Haise was seriously ill.

What you will find out from listening to these videos is how much the astronauts had to do to get back alive. The engineers in Houston had to rewrite every thing. They had a checklist for every possible thing that could go wrong, except what did go wrong. I suspect they felt that if that happened it would be too late. It almost was. If the accident had happened just an hour later when the tunnel between the Lunar module and the command module was closed, they would have likely run out of power and not made it back.

Yes, it was that close.

They filled up every sheet of paper they had with new procedures and had to reset hundreds of switches. Then there was that master alarm on the battery that was keeping them alive. You can hear the stress in Commander Jim Lovell’s voice when that went off. You never saw that in the movie…

Listen to a few hours of a time when America showed its scientific greatness. I bet there was no one on the House Science Committee in 1970 who would openly say the world was 6,000 years old and the big bang was “a lie straight from the pit of Hell”.

Times have changed..and to think, much of this took place in Texas!


Note: In an earlier version I included more info on Simon but he would prefer (understandably) to remain a bit more private, and I misunderstood.