I’m like most of you. I loved the 1995 film “Apollo 13.” Never had we space buffs had such a dramatic and technically accurate film about an actual space mission since, perhaps, “The Right Stuff”.
But the more that the typical space enthusiast or professional watches “13,” the more the flaws appear, both technical and in characterization. As with any other film, we could nitpick Ron Howard’s work ceaselessly.
But let’s steer clear of the characterization errors, as much of them were intentionally added to ramp up the drama. The crew didn’t yell at each other, carbon dioxide poisoning or no, and neither did the flight controllers or directors in Houston. Let’s just explore the pure technical and historical gaffes and places where the film shows their work, and compare notes.
There’s a lot to pick on, so this is the first in a series on the film’s goofs.
#1 -The Fire
Timestamp 00:00:41 to 00:01:47: Several. The Apollo 1 fire is depicted as having started with a switch flipped and spark flying from the switch. The fire doesn’t start near Grissom’s seat as accident analysis notes, but just erupts everywhere.
The dialog by Walter Cronkite, by the way, was recorded by the big guy, still alive and well at the time, specifically for this film. The TV footage is from CBS News coverage of Apollo 11’s landing, which shows Cronkite noting the bump ahead to the moonwalk to 9 PM that night on July 20.
#2 – The Party
Timestamp 00:01:47 to 00:07:49: This party scene at the Lowell home is entirely fictional and meant to be a humorous ice-breaking scene to introduce us to the original Apollo 13 crew and their family members, as well as a little establishing characterization of Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) and then-backup CMP Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). The real Lovell and many of the astronauts were in Mission Control in Houston throughout the landing and moonwalk. Where else would they really be!?
If the guy that portrays Pete Conrad (the guy with the cigar) seems familiar, he should be if you’ve watched the later HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon” (also a Tom Hanks venture). That’s actor David Andrews. He portrays an excellent rendition of astronaut Frank Borman through several episodes of that series (as do many “13” actors that also appear in the series, recast in different roles).
The CBS News footage shows Cronkite taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes and hands excitedly, but this was footage spliced of Cronkite reacting to the moment of the landing hours earlier, not the footsteps.
#3 – The VAB assembly of a Saturn
Timestamp 00:07:49 to 00:09:37: Great virtualization of the VAB with a CGI Saturn V being assembled as Lovell gives a tour.
Now, while tours wouldn’t be uncommon, the speed of the assembly of the S-IVB to the S-II would’ve been much, much more slowly. The man who asks Lovell about continuing funding for Apollo is classic B-movie director Roger Corman, a mentor to Ron Howard. There was a tradition of Corman making cameo appearances in his protege’s works.
#4 – Al’s Ear Infection
Timestamp 00:09:37 to 00:11:10: A fact-check. Lovell says that his flight has been moved to become Apollo 13, switching with Al Shepard’s mission, because “Al’s ear infection has flared up.” In reality, Al had his Ménière’s disease fixed before then and returned to flight status in May 1969 (the tour event dialog is going on in October 1969). The switch happened because NASA wanted Shepard and his crew to get in more training, given that now-Apollo 14 would be effectively an all-rookie crew (Shepard’s last flight was a 15-minute suborbital jaunt, remember?).
#5 – The Photo Op
Timestamp 00:18:32 to 00:19:47: The official photos of the crew in this scene on April 7 would’ve been done weeks, if not months before the launch, and would’ve had only NASA photographers, not the press. Further, after the Great Colds of Apollos 7 and 9, Flight Surgeons had enough and isolated the crews from all but critical staff two weeks before flight, and any interviews would’ve had them isolated from others.
This didn’t help 13’s crew because Charlie Duke, a member of the 13 backup crew and thus someone that the prime crew would naturally be near during training, is exposed to German measles, which leads to Swigert’s swap into the prime crew. Props to the prop team for the spacesuits: These were beautiful replicas, with very minor flaws.
#5 – The Saturn V’s Paint Job and the Crawler-Transporter
Timestamp 00:19:47 to 00:21:24: Beautiful use of CGI to depict 13’s Saturn V rollout. The crawler-transporter is the real thing, but the pad and Saturn V are digitally rendered. Talk about getting the cooperation of NASA to have the crawler move along the road in Florida. The film certainly had to pay for the gas and driver’s time.
But there is a significant flaw in the Saturn’s paint job that’s more visible later. The S-IVB’s upper stage shows a segmented black paint stripes (these are all over the vehicle and used for tracking and roll checks) that was used only on early animations of the Saturn V launch and on SA-500F, the mockup Saturn V used for fit checks. All flight-ready Saturn Vs used a solid line.
Also, the mobile pad that sits atop the crawler isn’t really there in the live shot; the crawler is just rolling by itself naturally.
As you can see in the picture of Apollo 4‘s rollout, the pad easily overshadows the crawler’s body.
So not only shouldn’t you be able to see the upper edge of the crawler over Lovell’s shoulder, he and the technician he’s speaking to (as well as Deke and the flight surgeon that meet him moments later) should be overshadowed by the bulk of the pad above them, atop the crawler.
#6 – Awesome Technical Accuracy
Timestamp 00:24:01 to 00:26:17 isn’t really a gaffe but a shout-out to the film, adding in technical details they didn’t really need to do, as Swigert drills re-entry simulations. Program P64 is the correct program for the Apollo guidance computer to be in at that moment. It maintains a check on the pitch and yaw attitudes of the CM as it enters the atmosphere. In this scene, Swigert doesn’t interpret a corridor light indicator as possibly bad data. He feels the CM is coming in too shallow, which would eventually cause the CM to skip out of the atmosphere, unable to return.
P64 is designed to keep a lift-up attitude to avoid the CM entering too steeply and destroying itself (which is exactly what happens in the CM sim). The only problem in this scene is that Swigert reacts too quickly and effectively nose-dives the sim. That is, according to a NASA film on Apollo reentry, there’s not much he can do until the CM reaches the first of two control periods where there is sufficient air to adjust the lift to correct shallow or steep entry angles.
Lovell’s comment after the failure saying that they were “In P67 there, so…” wasn’t quite right in timing (they failed at P64 and near the first entry control period) but P67 is part of the reentry programming. That program occurs at the second control period where the CM adjusts it roll again to kill its cross-range flying to adjust for reaching its target landing spot.
I should mention that two of the technical advisers for the film were flight director Gerry Griffin and astronaut David Scott.
#7 – The Night Before Launch
Timestamp 00:26:17 to 00:27:46, the scene where families would meet across the roadway near the pad, never happened in Apollo flights.
After the illnesses on Apollo 7 and colds that delayed Apollo 9, astronauts got to meet with their families privately a few weeks before launch before going into isolation.
This scene was added dramatics based on early Shuttle mission goodbyes. Such an event certainly wouldn’t have happened for Apollo, especially the night before launch.
Here’s a photo of such a thing, with STS-93 commander Eileen Collins saying hi and bye to family members at the pad before her mission in July 1999.
#8 – Vere in the Hell is Guenter Vendt?
It’s launch prep time in the suit room. While the suit-up scene was fine, one person should not be here: Guenter Wendt. He’s the Pad Leader and, in reality, was in the White Room atop the Saturn V with his support team, completing the final checkouts before the crew arrives for his team to seat. Wendt is the last face that the crew saw before the hatch was closed.
As part of the Apollo fire changes, Wendt was hired by North American Aviation from McDonnell Aircraft (where he worked on Gemini and Mercury) on the astronaut’s request as they trusted his meticulousness to procedure and saw him as a good-luck part of the launch ritual. As well, the actor playing Wendt is much too young.
Hanks and others correct this error in the FTEttM episode “We Have Cleared the Tower” when they not only have Guenter in the right spot but age-appropriately played (and well) by actor Max Wright (From the TV show “ALF”). The real Guenter is in a cameo in Mission Control in that episode, by the way.
Guenter Wendt gave all crews his best wishes and handshakes as the last man to see the crew before the hatch is closed. Wendt stayed on through the Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and even a few Space Shuttle missions before retiring in 1989.
#9 – The Mission Operations Control Room
Timestamp 00:32:08 shows the first full view of the Mission Control set. NASA had offered the film crew the use of the real Mission Control but they opted to build a set.
That set turned out so realistic that one past controller that visited the film set tried to leave the room through a door that didn’t exist on the set. By far, this set remains the most photo-realistic and certainly immersive element of the film to me. You can almost smell the after-shave and cigarette smoke. There’s hardly a way to tell the difference between the real and the film MOCR except for the presence of the actors.
The casting of actor Ed Harris was a meta-win for space docudramas, as Harris played John Glenn in “The Right Stuff” years before. Harris also exuded the real Kranz’s maturity. He was in his mid-30s and older than many of the flight controllers by as much as a decade.
#10 – Fried and Battered Mattingly for Dinner, Anyone?
Timestamp 00:33:14 to 00:33:47 shows Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, leaving his Corvette to stand to watch the Saturn V…WAY too close to the pad. He’d have to be standing barely a mile way to see the Saturn as rendered in the film.
If something bad would’ve happened to the Saturn at this range, film Mattingly might escape in his Corvette before the shockwave and fireball of what would likely be the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosion overcame him, incinerating him and pummeling his car with debris.
The real Ken wasn’t at KSC I believe; he was in Mission Control in Houston, working as were many of the astronauts did in some capacity during all missions.
Did I mention the wrong paint job on the Saturn V? I guess I’m still annoyed about it.
#11 – The Events to Ignition
Timestamp 00:33:47 shows a series of Saturn V shots that were pretty realistic, especially the camera under the F-1 engines–although I believe the engine bells are wrongly rendered; these were covered in an aluminum bunting and not bare as shown here.
Timestamp 00:34:18 briefly shows the Launch Director (at KSC), but it looks like the film didn’t want to bother showing the massive control room near the VAB or the staff very much, preferring to fix on Mission Control once it takes control of the spacecraft after clearing the tower.
It might have been nice to see, however briefly, a view of a television where people were watching a broadcast as the late great Jack King, the Voice of Apollo and announcer for many a NASA launch, spoke during the count. But King actually wasn’t doing his voiceover for 13 that day. He opted to take time to watch the launch himself that day rather than talk about it, and another announcer stood in.
At least they bothered to add the launch team, given that the crux of the story is about the crew and Mission Control.
#12 – Liftoff and Clearing the Tower
Timestamp 00:34:33 to 00:36:18 shows the F-1 engines kinda roaring to life, but not too accurately at first.
What’s most inaccurate are the swing arms peeling away from the vehicle, one by one, PRIOR to completion of ignition sequence start where the engines are fully started. The arms move away as a single unit in the real flights and only moved once the vehicle moved.
Now, the arms didn’t hold down the Saturn. That was the job of four hold-down clamps at the base of the rocket, which is also where the vehicle rested. But those swing arms had to move away before liftoff or the Saturn’s body would’ve been unzipped like a prom dress, causing potentially the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.
The condensed ice falling off the vehicle was very well done, as was the actual F-1 ignition, where the exhaust is sucked back inward from above the engines and pad as the real flights showed. Rule of Drama here as the whole ignition sequence appears to take twenty seconds to show events that took only 5 seconds in real missions.
But, damn, did they nail the realism of the liftoff and clearing the tower. Also beautiful is the pitch maneuver. While showing it a bit earlier than it should, the CGI even shows plume recirculation (the exhaust appearing to creep up over the bottom of the S-IC stage) nicely.
The launch scenes accelerate the actual 12 minutes of the flight (starting at 35:30) into about 3 minutes. Staging at timestamp 00:36:38 was interesting as the film does NOT depict the interstage dropping from the S-II–a very common bit of stock footage often used in space movies and documentaries, although it was only filmed on the unmanned Apollo 4 mission. Nope: Apollo didn’t have live webcams on the rocket as we have today (that would’ve been TOO AWESOME FOR ANYONE).
The center engine unexpectedly cutting off on the S-II is also accurate. The film properly notes the MECO cutoff time: 12 minutes 34 seconds. We’ll ignore that the J-2 engines on both the second and third stages simply glowed white (just as the Shuttle’s main engines do) ’cause not seeing flames on your rocket in your rocket drama is boring.
#13 – Let’s Just Speed Up that T&D Thing
Timestamp 00:40:55 begins the characterization fails and re-attribution of dialogue from real-life to film character that never leaves the film, even to the very end, because of the Rule of Drama. Here, Swigert begins SM separation from the SLA for transposition and docking.
The film makes it seem that Swigert is a bit inexperienced. The real Jim Lovell noted in commentary that, if Swigert couldn’t do the docking, either he or Haise could do it.
In reality, Jack Swigert was one of a handful of astronauts that chose to be a CMP pilot. In assisting to create the emergency procedures for the CM for other missions, Swigert was one of the best people to have aboard. Further, backup teams are as fully trained as the prime crew. The loss of the Gemini 9 prime crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in a plane crash made this point clear.
The T&D event occurs VERY rapidly in the film, like 5 times faster, to make some Swigert establishing drama, then get it out of the way and continue on to the big event.
#14 – I Guess They Really Weren’t Going to Land
Timestamp 00:44:04 shows a crucial omission from the CGI LM Aquarius. She’s missing her three contact probes from the base of her landing pads.
Given that, in the same shot, they show an exhaustively detailed CM exterior (complete with diagonally striped aluminized kapton foil on the skin) the omission might’ve been done for easier rendering of the model.
#15 – The Explosion and the Gyrations
Timestamp 00:50:00: The request to roll right to stop their passive thermal roll was to take a look at Comet Bennett but isn’t explained because it didn’t matter for the film. The depiction of the explosion is Hollywood-level theatrics.
The real incident caused a “loud bang” with master alarms but did not cause the whole CM/LM to go ass-over-teakettle in struggling oscillations against the venting oxygen. (But it looked awesome, didn’t it?).
Again, the film here compresses time. From the time of the accident start to battery switchover as the fuel cells gave their last, 2 hours 9 minutes go by in the real mission. For brevity, some comments are left out and one major player in the real drama is all but left out of the picture. Film Kranz says dialogue that real-life CAPCOM Jack Lousma asks (“Is this a real problem or are we looking at instrumentation?”) and Lovell says the film version of “Houston, we have a problem” versus the actual words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
The film does a fair job at making the heartbreaking realization of venting apparent when Lovell reports he can see venting outside of window 1. The flight director loop audio of the real mission has a similar pause.
#16 – The Peek-a-Boo Camera
Timestamp 00:52:28: The most egregious blooper in the whole film. Swigert tries to replace the CM hatch, and removes it, allowing us to see a production camera inside the docking tunnel, clear as day. I’m using the Collector’s Edition DVD, so perhaps this blooper was fixed later.
#17 – The Floating Debris
Timestamp 00:52:45: While the wild gyrations of the CM/LM were not realistic, the debris that floated with them was quite realistic. In the real mission, astronauts on the ground, led by Tom Stafford, were suspecting that the LM-as-lifeboat mode could not use its Apollo Optical Telescope to make its own star fixes for getting its 8-ball, the guidance coordinates, because of following debris. Later in the film, Haise is seen trying to use the AOT and fails, so this was added well, although not accurately. The real-life Haise’s attempt at the AOT reveals that the sun’s glare off the CM’s skin makes star sighting also impossible.
#18 – The Venting
Timestamp 00:53:12: Lovell discovers the venting visually and reports it, “…It’s gotta be the oxygen.” In the real event, he only notes it as a “gas of some sort.” Kranz polls INCO and then EECOM, where Sy Liebergot confirms that their readings show a likely venting from their systems. The likelihood that the O2 is venting is still something that MOCR has a problem realizing. While the film’s Mission Control staff totally loses their shit, the real-life Mission Control audio is dead-quiet in the realization that this mission is now going off the rails and off-script.
#19 – The Reactant Valve Closing
Timestamp 00:54:50: Haise notes the O2 tank 1 pressure is at 200 pounds. This is premature in the real event. The O2 pressure was above 300 pounds when the call came from MOCR to begin some setup of the LM in real-life. By going straight to 200 they make more drama. The gages moving rapidly downward were also grossly unrealistic since it would show 100-pound pressure drops in seconds.
In reality, there were two commands by MOCR on the fuel cells. They’re told to first close fuel cell 3, then later, told to close fuel cell 1. Once that happens, the moon landing was officially off the table by mission rules.
#20 – Chatter amongst themselves
Timestamp 00:55:28 shows Fred Haise saying “We ain’t gonna have power much longer: The ship’s bleeding to death.” While not in any transcript, this represents realistic unrecorded onboard conversations by the crew of their situation, inferred by Jack Swigert in the transcripts. The crew has also been watching the slow drop of O2. In real events, they had already been told to close the reactant valves on one fuel cell. The film shows them closing the reactants of a second cell. The real Lovell doesn’t say “We just lost the moon” on the transcript, but you can hear Lovell’s disappointment and resignation in his voice in the air-to-ground audio in getting the confirmation as he said, “Roger, Houston, closing the REACT valves.” In the film, it’s Lovell, not Swigert, asking for confirmation. Again, the gauge show the O2 plummeting to zero, which would be bad. But showing a slow no-change in the rate isn’t dramatic enough for the film.
#21 – The Missing Black Team
(Timestamp 00:58:48): By this time in the real-life sequence of events, Kranz’s White Team of controllers have swapped with Director Glynn Lunney’s team. In the film, Sy Liebergot is telling Kranz there’s only 15 minutes of life support in Odyssey. In reality, Sy makes an estimate of 1 hour 30 minutes of life support before he’s replaced by Black Team’s Clint Barton. Barton (with support from the EECOM team) makes a better estimate much earlier, then continues to pester Lunney to get the LM systems up.
Lunney was a trooper, continuing to ask EECOM if there’s anything to be done about the O2 situation or if they were “past helping them.” The film shortly introduces Lunney’s character, but he’s barely on the floor long, despite being the central point person in actual events that gets the CM shut down and the LM powered up before they use too much CM battery power. Kranz never takes the Flight seat again in actual events except during the re-entry and splashdown periods, as he is seen in NASA photos.
#22 – Getting into the LM
(Timestamp 00:59:20): Here the events are played a bit more straight in terms of time. In the film’s “15 minutes,” Haise and Lovell were already in the LM before MOCR asked and Kranz orders the CM to LM guidance transfer. In reality, with the events of getting the LM ECLSS and computer up, 15 minutes did pass by. The film doesn’t depict a dramatic moment in the flight controller loop where an EECOM shouts to Flight to switch to CM batteries as the fuel cell manifolds fail with the last gasps of O2 as the pressure fades at 100 PSI. “CAPCOM, Battery A…tell ‘em to hurry,” Lunney said.
The flight director loops on YouTube have the first 6 hours of the accident. Lunney is in charge for the last 4.5 of them, so this is a bit of injustice for a man that did a lot of work in the early crisis that’s credited to Film Kranz, even for the sake of drama.
The film combines two other problems: Getting the LM reaction control jets up and trying to control the LM–difficult since the CM/SM had the center of gravity, not the LM. In real-life, the LM had guidance shortly after the CM transferred to batteries but hadn’t charged up the RCS. The film makes the loss of control more crazy, but little happened except for Swigert reactivating his jets and struggling to get power to some of the quads to keep the stack from a mind but prominent pitch and roll as Haise and Lovell were pressurizing their RCS.
Timestamp 01:00:46 shows Lovell using a card to convert his CM guidance numbers to LM. In both film and real-life, Lovell doesn’t trust his numbers and asks MOCR to verify them. The film makes a gaffe in that slide rules don’t do the math used for such calculations.
Okay, enough for now. Part 2 will hopefully complete the second half of the film.
If I’ve made an error or you noted any other technical gaffe, just say so.