The iconic five-word phrase — “Houston, we have a problem.” that was spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell, portrayed by Tom Hanks, in the 1995 blockbuster film Apollo 13 became one of the most memorable movie quotes instantly of all time. However, the line was just one example where director Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning movie has taken some creative license.
Kevin Bacon played the role of Astronaut Jack Swigert on the big screen and was actually the first one to send the famous distress call from the shuttle to Mission Control. He actually said, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Other than that small change of phrase, Apollo 13 was a real portrayal of the dangerous outer space journey of the three astronauts: Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), Swigert, and Lovell.
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 was launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center which was NASA’s third moon-landing mission. After two days — and approx. 205,000 miles from Earth — the men in the ship reported hearing a loud thud. The problem which Swigert had famously mentioned was an oxygen tank explosion. The explosion heavily damaged the ship, making lunar landing impossible.
At the Kennedy Space Center gala, the team celebrated the mission’s 45th anniversary in April 2015 where Lovell recalled the incident and said, “It really was not a problem until I peeped out the window and found that the oxygen’s escape from the back end of my spacecraft that I knew that we were in was really in terrible trouble.”
All around the country, Americans stuck to their television sets awaiting news of what happened to the three astronauts that were forced to orbit the moon while struggling to find a way to get back to their respective families. After spending over 142 hrs and 54 min in space, the trio returned safely to Earth landing about four miles from USS Iwo Jima — recovery ship, in the south Pacific Ocean
The next day, the men were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon. Also, Apollo 13’s Mission Operations Team was also awarded the award for their outstanding efforts during what was called “NASA’s finest hour.”
Here are the real men who are behind the famous space mission and the hit film:
Commander James “Jim” Lovell Jr. (Tom Hanks)
Tom Hanks played the role of Lovell in the 1995 film. Lovell had an experience of 572 spaceflight hours and three missions to his credit and was considered the world’s most traveled astronaut for a time. The Cleveland, Ohio native and a former test pilot, participated in a number of high-profile NASA missions, including flights on Gemini 12, Gemini 7 and Apollo 8, which was the foremost mission to circle the moon.
Lovell attended the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1948 until 1952 before joining NASA. Upon graduating, he married his high school love Marilyn Lovell (née Gerlach), who was portrayed by actor Kathleen Quinlan in the film Apollo 13. The duo has four children: James, Barbara, Jeffrey, and Susan.
Lovell’s role as the commander of Apollo 13 is the one he’s often considered over the years. “In its initial mission, the flight was a failure,” he said in 2015. “However, it turned out to be a huge success in the ability of people to get together, just like the mission control team that worked with what they had and working with the crew of the flight to turn what was almost a certain disaster into a victorious recovery.”
Lovell retired as a U.S. Navy captain and from NASA on March 1, 1973. After having worked in various corporate jobs, which included executive roles in a telecommunications business and towing company, he retired from the private sector too in 1991. Lovell co-wrote the 1994 book collaborating with journalist Jeffrey Kluge, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which was the basis for Howard’s big-screen adaptation the next year. Lovell made a cameo in the film as the captain of the rescue ship — USS Iwo Jima.
Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, Jr. (Bill Paxton)
Paxton played Haise who was born in Biloxi, Mississippi and completed his flight training with the United States Navy in 1954 and served in the United States Marine Corps as a fighter pilot until 1956. At the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio (now the Glenn Research Center), Haise started his NASA career in 1959. The University of Oklahoma graduate Haise acted as a research pilot. He was selected for astronaut training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in 1966 after he worked as a research pilot.
The then 35-year-old Haise had worked as a backup lunar module pilot on Apollo 11 and 8, but his prior experience proved most useful in helping the Apollo 13 crew survive the suspended lunar-landing mission. In a 2014 Q&A with NASA, he explained: “As a test pilot and military pilot, handling uncommon situations and aircraft faults was part of the business.” Also, he said, “My biggest emotion after the oxygen tank explosion was a huge disappointment for us on Apollo 13, as we had lost the chance of landing.”
Ron Howard, director Apollo 13, commented that it never did sound like we had a problem with spacecraft after listening to the complete air-to-ground transmissions.
Haise was assigned to command the Apollo 19 moon mission of NASA that was ultimately canceled in 1972 after a series of budget shortages. Haise piloted the space shuttle Enterprise along with a fellow astronaut Gordon Fullerton for three of its test flights in the year 1977. He left NASA in 1979 and served as president of Grumman Technical Services Inc. throughout the 1980s and 1990s as part of the Shuttle Processing Contract Team until his retirement.
Command Module Pilot John “Jack” Swigert Jr. (Kevin Bacon)
Swigert was added to the Apollo 13 crew at the last minute, replacing Ken Mattingly, who was exposed to German measles 48 hours before the launch in 1970. Swigert who is a Colorado native served in the U. S. Air Force for 3 years viz. 1953 to 1956. He was assigned as a fighter pilot in Korea and Japan after he graduated from the Gunnery School and Pilot Training Program at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
After his active duty, Swigert served as a jet fighter pilot from 1957 to 1960 in the Massachusetts Air National Guard and from 1960 to 1965 in the Connecticut Air National Guard. Haise and Swigert were among the 19 astronauts who were selected by NASA for training in April 1966, and after two years, he became a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 7. The Apollo 13 mission was the aerospace and mechanical engineer’s first space flight. He was 38 years old when he went for his first space flight.
He became the United States House of Representatives’ Exec. Director of the Committee on Science and Technology after taking a leave of absence in 1973 April. Swigert eventually resigned from the congressional committee and NASA in 1977 August to officially enter politics. Swigert, who was a Republican, was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the 6th district of Colorado’s in 1982. Swigert died of bone cancer on 27 December 1982, before he swore in at the age of 51 years.
The film was directed in such a way that, it appeared as the video shown to us was not a regular film but was a film shot on Apollo 13 – Live when the explosion happened. The actors Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon portrayed the astronauts Lovell, Haise, and Swigert respectively. They portrayed brilliantly that it appeared like they were the real astronauts who went to space on Apollo 13. This is a must-watch if you are a fan of Sci-Fi films and you will definitely appreciate the work of Ron Howard for the film.