How accurate was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13?

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Based on the book Lost Moon (later retitled to match the name of the film) by astronaut Jim Lovell and author Jeffrey Kluger, it tells the true story of what many consider to be NASA’s finest hour: the saving of Apollo 13.

Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 11 April 1970, intended to be the third mission to land on the Moon. Two days into the mission, though, an oxygen tank in the service module (click the link for a breakdown of the different ‘modules’ that made up an Apollo spacecraft) exploded and plunged the lives of the crew into peril.

A loss of electrical power, dropping oxygen levels, rising carbon dioxide, freezing temperatures, a potentially damaged heat shield and a trajectory that would see them skip off Earth’s atmosphere and into the void of space – each and every one of these problems had to be overcome if the crew of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were to make it home alive.

The film is generally considered to be a very historically accurate one. Director Ron Howard employed the help of several key NASA personnel from the Apollo era, including Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott, to coach members of the cast in an attempt to make every scene technically spot-on, and even secured use of NASA’s reduced-gravity training plane to film the zero-gravity scenes.

There are, however, a few minor errors – or tweaks at least – that separate the film from real-life events. And while they definitely do not ruin the whole film, I am nothing if not a nitpicker.

1. ‘Houston, we have a problem’

This particular line has become something of a staple of pop-culture, often quoted by people who haven’t even seen the film. But, while a lot of the dialogue between the astronauts and Mission Control was drawn word-for-word from the mission transcripts, this particular line was not. The actual exchange went as follows:

Swigert: Okay, Houston…

Lovell: Houston…

Swigert: … we’ve had a problem here.

CapCom: This is Houston. Say again, please.

Lovell: Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem.

The change from ‘we’ve had a problem’ to ‘we have a problem’ is a relatively minor one, but it was made because, according to director Ron Howard, it made things sound slightly more dramatic. As if there wasn’t enough drama in real life!

2. ‘what was that gauge reading before you hit the switch?’

One of the film’s subplots revolves around a conflict between Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon). Haise implies that he blamed Swigert for the explosion of the oxygen tank, and an argument breaks out between all three astronauts.

The real Haise and Lovell (Jack Swigert had passed away in 1982) vehemently pressed for the scene to not be included in the film, because it simply did not happen. The crew could not have afforded to have any arguments because, as Lovell would later say, they would have just ended up right back where they started. Director Ron Howard won out in the end and the scene was included.

3. Square peg in a round hole

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when a group of engineers retreat into a spare room in Mission Control to try and figure out a solution to the excess carbon dioxide that was rapidly building up in the lunar module and slowly poisoning the astronauts with each breath.

Both the command and lunar modules were fitted with ‘scrubbers’, pieces of equipment which purged the air of excess carbon dioxide and ensured it remained breathable. However, the lunar module and its scrubbers were designed to support two astronauts for a day and a half, not three astronauts for three days. As such, the scrubbers were rapidly becoming saturated with too much carbon dioxide and needed to be swapped for those in the command module.

The problem was, they were two different shapes, owing to the two spacecraft having been built by different contractors. The engineers needed to literally work out how to fit a square peg (i.e. the command module’s scrubbers) into a round hole (the slot for the lunar module’s scrubbers). And they had to do it only using random items they knew the astronauts would have floating around with them in space.

As the clip above shows, the film suggests it was a group of engineers who came up with the solution. However, in perhaps a rare case of real-life being more dramatic than the film, it was actually the brainchild of just one man. His name was Ed Smylie and he was chief of the Crew Systems Division. He had been with NASA since the days of Project Mercury and it was his job to help test and develop various life-support systems. What’s more, he came up with the initial idea in the time it took him to drive from his house to Mission Control.

4. Using the lunar module’s engine to propel the entire spacecraft

One of the major points of the film comes when the crew are forced to use the engine of their lunar module to propel the entire ‘stack’ (i.e. the lunar module, command module and service module) out of lunar orbit at an increased speed, which would allow them to shave a considerable amount of time off their home journey and thus save them precious consumables like water.

The film suggests that this is something that had never even been attempted or simulated before. However, such a manoeuvre had actually been one of the main objectives of Apollo 9, which had flown just over a year before Apollo 13 and was the first crewed test of the lunar module.

5. swapping the crews of apollo 13 and apollo 14

Towards the very beginning of the film, it is said that the reason Jim Lovell and his crew were switched from Apollo 14 to Apollo 13 was because Alan Shepard‘s ‘ear infection flared up again’. This was not the case.

Shepard had already undergone the surgery that cured him of Ménière’s disease at that point; the real reason for the switch was because NASA management felt Shepard needed more time to train and get up to speed, considering he had been grounded for so long.

And there you have it. Five nitpicks inaccuracies in an otherwise amazing film that managed to impress both those with prior knowledge of NASA history and those without. Why not give the film a watch, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary?

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