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Home > Saturn/Apollo > Apollo 13 Film Has Special Meaning for Marshall Center, Huntsville

Apollo 13 Film Has Special Meaning for Marshall Center, Huntsville

Mike Wright
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian

The scene cuts to the big city and to the days when everyone seemed to wear a hat and puff unfiltered Camels. Crowds of Americans are gathered in Times Square watching a floating marquee spell out the news of some impending crisis.

That's how some Americans got the word about the trouble facing NASA's Apollo 13 on the evening of April 13, 1970.

Twenty-five years have gone by. But interest in Apollo 13 is higher than ever thanks, in part, to a new film directed by Ron Howard. The film stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert.

The film is expected to have special meaning for Huntsville residents. The Marshall Center was responsible for providing the Saturn V launch vehicles for all of the Apollo missions.

Photo:Saturn V Apollo-13 Launch
Saturn V Apollo-13 Launch

The crisis aboard Apollo 13 had nothing to do with the Saturn V launch vehicle. However, some employees at the Center served as consultants to the boards that investigated Apollo 13. One of those employees was Marshall's Robert Schwinghamer. He and others were summoned to Houston where they stayed several weeks conducting tests and other data. Schwinghamer and his group focused on tests involving liquid and gaseous oxygen. He said some of the lessons learned were later applied to the development of the wiring for the Space Shuttle External Tank.

Aside from being involved in the technical investigations into the cause of the accident, Schwinghamer also remembers the feelings that NASA employees shared during the week that Apollo 13 was in danger. "Despair was not evident," he said. "It was a challenging engineering problem," he added, but one "in which human lives were at stake."

Howard's film about Apollo 13 is also expected to have additional meaning for Huntsville. Howard, Tom Hanks and other cast members made an unpublicized visit to Huntsville last year to learn more about space exploration and to orient themselves for the film production. The group visited the United States Space and Rocket Center and the Marshall Center. Marshall Protocol Officer Sandra Turner conducted the MSFC tour and arranged for briefings by Marshall employees. "The visitors were all just as down to earth as they could be," Turner said, adding that Hanks loved to crack jokes. The group visited the Marshall Test Area, the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator and other sites.

Along with Turner, Rodney Grubbs, Motion Picture Production specialist for the Marshall Center's Information Systems Services office was cited in the credits of the film. Grubbs assisted the film's editors by helping them determine the possible use of NASA's original film footage for the launch sequence.

The real Apollo 13 mission was, said Commander James Lovell, "strictly a case of survival."

Apollo 13 was launched at 1:13 p.m. CST April 11 at Cape Kennedy -- a perfect launch under slightly cloudy skies.

About 2 1/2 hours after launch, the spacecraft was placed on a path to the moon and, as the crew trained its television cameras, the command/service module was separated, turned and docked.

The astronauts began taking photos and doing housekeeping chores. The mission was going faultlessly. Astronaut Fred Haise played the Marine Corps hymn on a small tape recorder in the spacecraft.

The morning of the second day of the flight found the astronauts swapping off for long 10-hour rest periods. Mission Control went into a phase of what it called quiet planning. Astronaut Jack Swigert joked about forgetting to file his income tax. Commander Jim Lovell ate a hot dog.

On Monday morning, Mission Control was predicting that Apollo 13 would enter the moon's influence the following day, Tuesday on schedule--with the landing to follow the next day.

At about that time, the spacecraft was on such a good trajectory to the moon that a mid- course correction was eliminated.

Monday evening, now in their third full day in space, the astronauts -- in a television broadcast -- showed millions of viewers some of the electronic equipment in the spacecraft.

But about 9 p.m. that evening -- Monday evening -- trouble developed. There was a thump in the service module behind the astronauts. An oxygen tank had ruptured. Pressure dropped alarmingly.

Photo: Apollo-13 Service Module Rupture
Apollo-13 Service Module Rupture

"Thirteen minutes after the explosion, I happened to look out of the left-hand window, and saw the final evidence pointing toward potential catastrophe," Lovell later recalled. "It was a gas -- oxygen -- escaping at a high rate from our second, and last, oxygen tank."

Mission Control canceled the lunar landing and rushed plans to bring the spacecraft back to earth as soon as possible.

It was decided that the swiftest and easiest method would be to have Apollo 13 continue to the moon, swing around it and return to earth and try for a landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, on the ground at Mission Control, Chris Kraft, deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, was expressing assurance that there was enough oxygen, water and power to return the three astronauts safely to earth.

Now about 215,000 miles from earth, a make-shift plan was devised. The astronauts would move into the lunar module and use its life support systems after they had powered down the command module.

"With only 15 minutes of power left in the CM, CapCom told us to make our way into the LM," Lovell said. "There were many, many things to do. In the first place, did we have enough consumables to get home?"

Tuesday evening, the spacecraft looped around the moon and then completed a 30 second burn of the lunar module's descent engine.

Now on the way home, the astronauts turned down some systems on the lunar module to conserve power and the men resumed regular but shorter rest periods.

"We would have died of the exhaust from our own lungs if Mission Control hadn't come up with a marvelous fix," Lovell said. Using spare parts and spacecraft canisters, the astronauts improvised a method to reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the spacecraft.

Photo: Apollo-13 Astronauts
Apollo-13 Astronauts

Mission Control verified again that the crew would have enough water, oxygen and power to last the remainder of the abbreviated mission. But conditions inside the Lunar Module were awful. "The trip was marked by discomfort beyond the lack of food and water," said Lovell, who lost 14 pounds of body weight during the mission.

"Sleep was almost impossible because of the cold. When we turned off electrical systems, we lost our source of heat, and the Sun streaming in the windows didn't help much. We were as cold as frogs in a frozen pool," Lovell said.

On Wednesday evening, Apollo 13 underwent another mid-course correction -- again a burn of the lunar module's descent engine -- and refined its trajectory toward the Pacific splashdown point.

Photo: Apollo 13 Astronauts aboard USS Iwo Jima
Apollo 13 Astronauts aboard USS Iwo Jima

By Friday morning, discussion had turned to entry angles and the weather in the splashdown area. The Iwo Jima, the recovery ship, was on station.

After a final mid-course correction Friday morning, hours before splashdown, the astronauts jettisoned the service module and the lunar module, Aquarius, which had served as their life boat since the trouble on Monday evening.

The astronauts entered the command module and prepared for their return home. "We found the CM a cold, clammy tin can when we started to power up The walls, ceilings, floor, wire harnesses, and panels were all covered with droplets of water. We suspected conditions were the same behind the panels," Lovell recalled.

The chances for short circuits and fire were great. Fortunately no arcing took place and hours later the crew splashed down gently in the Pacific Ocean near Samoa. It was "a beautiful landing in a blue-ink ocean on a lovely, lovely planet, " Lovell said.

Apollo 13 captured America's attention. Lovell, Swigert, and Haise were greeted by the President and parades following their return. "We never dreamed a billion people were following us on television and radio, and reading about us in banner headlines of every newspaper published."

Interest in amazing but true stories like Apollo 13 will always be popular in America. And, Ron Howard's version of Apollo 13 will make the real story even more popular.

In addition, many who see the film, and others who may not, can download text, still images, video and sound on Apollo 13 from the World Wide Web. The address is

(Portions of the above article were adapted from The Marshall Star of April 22, 1970; "Houston, We've Had a Problem," in NASA's "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon," edited by Edgar M. Cortright; and from other NASA sources.)

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