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13 Things You Might Not Know About Apollo 13

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Additional Sources:
The Making of Apollo 13

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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