2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, which had to be aborted due to an explosion that severely damaged the spaceship and put the lives of the three astronauts on board in danger. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the feature film Apollo 13 that dramatized the events of that 1970 mission.
Director Ron Howard and the cast and crew, including Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan, worked hard behind the scenes to portray the actual event as accurately as possible - while still leaving some room for dramatic license.
That attention to detail resulted in a film that was both a critical and commercial hit. The film received nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and won two (for editing and sound), as well as grossed $353 million at the box office worldwide.
The Production Filmed Inside NASA's 'Vomit Comet'
Director Ron Howard considered using special effects to simulate the astronauts' weightless during the space mission, but instead approached Universal Pictures about filming inside the "Vomit Comet." This windowless, padded jet plane used by NASA to simulate weightless, officially known as a KC-135, is nicknamed the Vomit Comet because its passengers tend to throw up during the wild ride.
To simulate zero gravity, the plane rises straight up to about 30,000 feet, plunges toward the ground, then repeats the action. In the 23 seconds at the top of the arc, the passengers experience true weightlessness.
Howard said that without permission to use the KC-135, he likely would have tried to simulate zero gravity by hooking the actors to wires.
For their first trip in the Vomit Comet, actors Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise joined director Howard and producer Todd Hallowell on a flight to the Gulf of Mexico. Although they received medication to combat nausea, each one had what NASA calls the "airman's corsage" - two plastic resealable bags - in case they got sick.
For the first few dips, they stayed strapped in their seats. On the fourth one, Paxton unbuckled his restraints and the others soon followed, floating weightless for the first time.
"I feel strangely drawn to it," said Paxton, who played astronaut Fred Haise. "Just to float - there is something liberating about it."
Bacon, who portrayed backup pilot Jack Swigert, had a much different reaction. “I was the wimp,” he told AMC.com. “I thought we’d go up in the plane once. We went on 40 zero-g trips.”
Hanks, who played astronaut Jim Lovell, admitted he made a mistake by deciding against taking the anti-nausea medication Scop-Dex: "I got very, very ill. I didn’t throw up, but man, did I want to! I was literally just lying on the floor, right next to the set, for the longest time, having these bizarre out-of-body experiences."
The set for the space vehicle was built inside the plane. It was cramped quarters, and the actors and crew had only those 23 seconds to pull off any scene before anything not nailed down would fall down all around them. The cast and crew ended up spending more than four hours experiencing zero gravity during the production - which is more time than most astronauts spend in training before going on a space mission.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
Tom Hanks said he was excited to be cast in the role of Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 space mission:
I’ve always wanted to play an astronaut. I’ve always wanted to shoot a vast section of a movie completely encapsulated by nothing but metal, glass, and switches, and I finally had a chance to do that. This is real dream-come-true stuff here.
Hanks told Entertainment Weekly in 1995 that he "followed the space program heavily" as a kid. "I could name all the crews of Apollo 7 through 12. And then Apollo 11, of course," he said, referring to when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. "That was the one the whole world stood still for. But I sort of stood still for each one of those Apollo missions."
- Video: YouTube
According to Robert Legato, visual effects supervisor for the film, no documentation was available for the ionization phase - when the real Apollo 13 spacecraft traveled through the Earth's atmosphere. For an idea on how to film the re-entry, Ron Howard reached out to actual astronauts who described it as feeling "like you’re in a fluorescent tube being lit up," Legato said in a featurette on the Apollo 13 DVD. He continued:
We thought, well, when you’re being hit with friction, it would just glow red and then go on fire, I guess... There’s a technique of shooting fire where you make it kinda liquid-y by instead of shooting fire at 24 frames per second, you shoot it at four seconds per frame so it gets really blurry and smeary and creates this kind of... looked like an ion storm to me.
For the final splashdown scene, instead of using CGI, Howard decided to use a model of the command module, equipped with real parachutes, and simply dropped it from a helicopter.
Howard Refused To Use Archival Footage Or Recordings In The FilmPhoto: Universal Pictures
Instead of using archival footage of the actual 1970 Apollo 13 mission, Ron Howard decided to have replicas of the real lunar and command modules constructed.
And instead of using old news footage of the space mission, Howard asked Walter Cronkite to re-record some of the comments from the news anchor's 1970 CBS coverage of the event.