13 Things You Might Not Know About Apollo 13
After winning consecutive Best Actor Academy Awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks was nominated a third time for his role as drifting astronaut Jim Lovell in 1995’s Apollo 13. (He did not win, proving he is human after all.) The consolation prize: the dramatization of the 1970 space program crisis that kept the world on its seat was the third highest-grossing film of the year, and remains one of the most faithful depictions of NASA operations ever put on film.
As the movie celebrates the 20th anniversary of its theatrical release, we thought we’d pull these 13 facts into your orbit (and from this point forward, let go of the awful space metaphors).
1. The Movie Rights Were Sold Before the Book Was Even Written.
In 1992, Lovell—one of three astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission when an explosion cost them fuel cells and oxygen, creating a life-support crisis—decided to write a book-length account of the incident titled Lost Moon. He and co-writer Jeff Kluger finished one chapter and a proposal, which was in turn sent to publishers and production houses. A bidding war was sparked, and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment wound up winning film rights. The movie actually began shooting in 1994 before Lovell’s book was even released. (It was later re-titled Apollo 13.)
2. Steven Spielberg Made a Crucial Suggestion.
To simulate the weightlessness inside the module, Howard and his crew were contemplating using wires and harnesses, a logistical decision that would’ve had his cast suspended like marionettes for months of shooting. Instead, Spielberg (a friend of Howard’s and frequent collaborator with Hanks) suggested that he look into the KC-135, a NASA-owned airplane that’s able to simulate zero gravity by maneuvering 45 degrees up and then plummeting.
Howard’s test shooting went well enough—and his producer, Todd Hallowell, was persistent enough—that NASA granted permission for a crew to film while on board the plane. That meant that ...
3. The Cast Endured Over 600 Controlled Plane Dives.
Because the KC-135 only achieved weightlessness for its occupants for 25 seconds at a time, Howard, Hanks and co-stars Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton had to make roughly 600 dives, called parabolas, in order to capture the amount of footage needed. Thirty to 40 of them were possible per flight, and the crew took two flights a day. Totaling more than four hours, the three actually got more experience with a reduced gravity environment than a lot of real astronauts.
4. Hanks Was Dubbed the “Accuracy Police.”
Hanks had wanted to make a film of the Apollo 13 mission even before Lovell’s book was announced, asking writers to investigate the premise and see if they could fashion a script from the events. When his agent called and told him Howard had purchased the rights, he was predisposed to accepting the role. Referred to as a “closet astronaut” by the crew, Hanks was preoccupied with getting every detail right. One day, he dragged Howard and producer Brian Grazer out of bed so they could watch an astronaut crew in action. Unfortunately, Hanks’ idea of “action” was seeing them walk across a parking lot.
5. A Friend of Jack Swigert’s Was Unhappy With His Portrayal.
Swigert, who was one of the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13, died in 1982. In the film, Bacon embodies Swigert as a roving-eyed bachelor and possibly a carrier of a sexually-transmitted disease. (Paxton’s Fred Haise comments he might’ve gotten “the clap.”) When the film was released, Barbara Zuanich-Friedman, a friend of Swigert’s, penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that took producers to task for his portrayal, asserting he was not the playboy Bacon presented. “Hollywood usually stereotypes its bachelors,” she wrote, “and Jack, 25 years after the fact, fell prey to that chintzy ploy ... He would have loved the film. He would have hated his character.”
6. Howard Refused to Use Any Stock Footage.
Both NASA and news crews had been meticulous in their coverage of the crew’s departure and subsequent re-entry, and Howard had investigated the possibility of using it for the film. But when his team began studying the footage, they realized most of it had been seen and that it had little coherence—shots jumped around, and no aircraft could get close to the rocket during blast-off. Instead, Howard created all shots of the mission, replicating actual scenes and then augmenting them with angles that would’ve been impossible in real life. It was so convincing that Buzz Aldrin went up to effects supervisor Rob Legato after a screening and asked where he had found the archived footage.
7. It Cribbed a Classic Line From Point Break.
Rumors abound—though it’s never been confirmed—that Gary Busey visited the set one day and suggested to Bill Paxton that his character, Fred Haise, dismiss a bout of nausea with the line, “I could eat the ass of a dead rhinoceros.” Circumstantial evidence is strong, however: Busey said virtually the same thing while portraying FBI agent Alex Pappas in 1991’s Point Break.
8. No One Was Sure What Re-Entry Was Supposed to Look Like.
When the three astronauts were able to attempt re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, there wasn’t a frame of reference for the special effects team to draw from—just the verbal recollections of Lovell and Haise, who described the scene from inside the module as akin to being in a fluorescent tube. To create the effect of the module’s fire-covered arrival, cameras filmed a blaze at only four frames per second, which gave it a flickering, smeared appearance to mimic the real thing.
9. “Houston, We Have a Problem” Was Not the Exact Quote.
One of the most popular lines in culture, Lovell’s grim delivery of his module’s malfunctions to Mission Control was not quoted word for word in the film. In reality, NASA received the message, “Houston, I believe we’ve had a problem,” not, “Houston, we have a problem.” (Maybe present tense made it more impactful.) Filmmakers also decided to have Hanks’ Lovell deliver the line; in fact, it was Swigert who first said it, though Lovell repeated it immediately as “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
10. Tom Hanks’ Head Kept Kevin Bacon From Puking.
Because the parabolas came so frequently, prompting queasiness, the actors took antiemetic medication. While none “spewed,” as Hanks put it, it was because they tried to distract themselves. Bacon recalled focusing on the back of Hanks’ head during periods of extreme stomach upset. It worked, though not everyone was soothed by the sight of famous performers. “One of the camera operators threw up all over Bill Paxton,” Howard said.
11. It Beat Stallone and the Power Rangers at the Box Office.
Apollo 13 debuted in a crowded summer movie season, with Batman Forever, Braveheart, and Die Hard with a Vengeance all vying for a piece of the box office. Fortunately, its direct competition on opening weekend was the widely-panned Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and the Sylvester Stallone flop Judge Dredd. Apollo 13 made roughly $25 million in its first three days, or nearly as much as both of the other debuting movies combined.
12. The Checklist Fetched $388,375 at Auction.
Because it was shown so prominently in the feature film, Jim Lovell’s original checklist book filled with equations and other notes addressing their mission's issues sold for $388,375 in a November 2011 auction. But the purchase was held up when NASA inquired whether Lovell actually owned the artifact outright. In 2012, President Obama signed a bill into law clarifying that astronauts had ownership of such materials.
13. A Preview Audience Member Hated the Ending.
Test screenings of the film were generally a success, but Howard was fascinated by the opinion of one 23-year-old who seemed to be aggravated at the film's climax, where the astronauts plop into the ocean unharmed. This, he wrote on a comments card, was “Terrible. More Hollywood BS. They would never survive.”
The Making of Apollo 13