Movies and History: ‘Apollo 13’
Marking NASA's Day of Remembrance
January 28th marks not only the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, it also marks NASA’s Day of Remembrance.
The end of January and beginning of February are a very somber time for NASA with the anniversary of not only the Challenger disaster, but also the Apollo 1 tragedy in which three astronauts were burned alive on the launch pad when a locking mechanism on their capsule failed to release. It is also the anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, which burned upon re-entry, killing all seven crew members aboard.
The Apollo 1 tragedy took place on January 27, 1967, and killed Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee.
The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, and killed Commander Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. A piece of debris from the external tank struck the wing of the shuttle during launch, fatally damaging the shuttle.
The Challenger disaster is the one that resonates most deeply with me, though. It happened on January 28, 1986. I was in fifth grade, and for a lot of people my age, this shuttle launch was truly special because NASA had decided to send a teacher into space. Not only that, she was going to teach her lesson plans from space. How cool is that?! Kids all across the nation were excited about this launch, and at schools all across the nation, teachers rolled TVs into classrooms in order to let their kids see the launch. At some schools, they made it an event and watched the launch on the big screens in multipurpose rooms or auditoriums. The Challenger launched at 11:39AM, EST. The excitement and sense of wonder that filled each room lasted for 73 seconds.
The Challenger exploded during its launch, killing Commander Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Gregory Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe.
I was not among the kids who watched it live on TV at the time. I was out at PE at 8:39AM PST, but when I got back to class, my fifth grade teacher told us what had happened. “The shuttle launch has been delayed again,” she said. “It’s been delayed a lot, actually.” When she revealed the full details, I remember thinking how inaccurate the word “delayed” was to describe this tragic disaster.
It was an event that shook the nation, especially the kids. That night, President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to give the State of Union Address, but he cancelled that and delivered this speech instead.
In the ensuing investigation, NASA determined that one of the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters failed and that is what caused the explosion. Years later, we learned that the manufacture of the O-rings were concerned about the potential of this happening because of the very cold temperatures in Cape Canaveral on launch day. Therefore, they told NASA to delay the launch again. However, NASA didn’t listen. Although, even more chilling is this: as kids, we were told that the seven astronauts perished immediately. It was what we all thought happened, it NASA wanted the pubic to believe, and it was a necessary “lie” to tell the kids. Now, we know that the crew cabin continued to ascend even after the explosion, and three crew members (if not all) were still alive. They knew something had happened (the final words that were uttered by Francis Scobee from the crew was: “Uh oh”) and they tried to pilot it all the way down. When the cabin hit the surface of the Atlantic at 220 mph, only then did the crew die—it’s sobering because this means they more than likely knew their death was coming.
Space travel is never easy, and we cannot fathom how complicated and dangerous it is to send a human into space, and then bring them back. In 1995, Ron Howard wanted to show us how much effort it took to send those brave men and women up, as well as bring them back with this movie, Apollo 13.
Apollo 13 tells the true story of the Apollo 13 spacecraft that had been destined to land on the Moon until, 56 hours into its mission, on April 14, 1970, an explosion on the spacecraft in space disabled it, leading to Tom Hank’s Jim Lovell to say the famous line, “Houston, we have a problem.” (The history books tell me that perhaps the real Jim Lovell said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”)
Ground crews worked tirelessly and furiously to figure out a way to bring them back, and they did, which is why the Apollo 13 mission is now deemed a “successful failure.”
Apollo 13 stars Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell who is the commander of the mission, and Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as Fred Haise and Jack Swigert who are Lovell’s fellow astronauts in space. In a tour de force performance, we also have Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the head of the ground crews who work to bring the crew home—and for whom “failure is not an option.”
The movie is almost an interesting experiment in that we know exactly what happens during the flight, and even if we don’t know, we can easily look it up in history books or read about it on the Internet. Yet, despite this, Ron Howard still generates tremendous drama and suspense. We become the astronauts in that tiny capsule. We feel their horror and their fright as they wonder if they will ever make it back home to see their wives and families.
Another thing the movie conveys very well is how “routine” the public starts to see space travel. Though Lovell is planning to broadcast from the Moon, the networks question whether they will even air the broadcast. It’s all about ratings after all, right?
Nonetheless, as this movie shows us (as the three disasters at the end of January and the beginning of February show us), there isn’t anything routine about space travel. It is dangerous, it is deadly, and it is not for the faint of heart. It really is only for the brave, the courageous, and those who wish to push their intelligence, their bodies, and their humanity to the limits.
To that end, without any onboard computers (the explosion damaged the electronics), the astronauts have to figure out with pencil and paper the proper angle at which they can enter Earth’s atmosphere. If they do too deep of a dive, they will immediately burn up—and too shallow of a dive, they will bounce off Earth’s atmosphere and back into space. Not only do they have to figure out the calculations by hand, they will also have to manually pilot the capsule.
…Brave and courageous to the extreme.
When the astronauts finally splash down in Apollo 13 on April 17, we feel a great sense of relief, and at last we can breathe. Only then do we take a moment to pause and think about the three harrowing days they spent in space.
Now, this is not to try and dissuade anyone from becoming an astronaut because we need them. We need more of them. We need to get back out there. We’ve become too busy arguing amongst ourselves, and in so doing, we’ve lost sight of the stars.
They’re calling to us—beckoning to us—and we have to get back out there.