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Things 'Apollo 13' Got Totally Wrong

Sometimes, it's beneficial to have a friend around that sees beneath the surface of a film and points out some discrepancies. The person who says something like, “Did you see what happened to that guy’s gloves?” Take Ron Howard’s 1995 space-disaster blockbuster, Apollo 13, for example. When the astronauts are in space and removing their equipment, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) takes off his gloves, but there they are, right back on his hands in the next shot.

As much as we may hate the nerdy film buff who points this out during a movie, it can be a lot of fun to look back later and check out a film’s gaffes. Apollo 13 is based on actual events that took place from April 11 to April 17, 1970. During the trip to the moon, an onboard oxygen tank exploded on April 13, and the crew had to abort their mission and return to Earth.

As for the film, the inaccuracies of the ill-fated moon mission are plentiful. Some of the Apollo 13 factual errors were intentionally included for dramatic effect, but others are just plain bloopers. For an immeasurably stacked cast and crew, there are sure a lot of oversights to point out. 

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  • Houston, We’ve Had A Problem.

    What’s that you say? “Had a problem?” Yes, the famous line in the movie is, “Houston, we have a problem.” But that’s not what was said on the real spacecraft. It might seem a nit-picky point, but since “Houston, we have a problem” is listed as one of the great movie quotes of all time by the American Film Institute, it’s definitely a point worth making.

    Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) delivers that well-known line after one of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks explodes en route to the moon. But transcripts of the audio recordings from the actual mission show that astronaut Jack Swigert first told Ground Control, “I believe we’ve had a problem here.” When Ground Control asked the astronaut to repeat, Lovell then said “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” It was Hanks who reportedly suggested altering the actual line from “had” to “have” to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

  • In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

    That was the tagline for the film Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. This silence also applies to propulsion jets on a space capsule. In one scene from Apollo 13, though, the propulsion jets of the mission’s Saturn V rocket are roaring. But space is a vacuum, and no sound, however loud in earthly atmosphere, can be heard.

    As one wit in the New York Times put it, you might hear the faintest of sounds if “you were very, very close to them, in which case you would be a cinder.”

  • Getting It Wrong From The Get-Go

    Apollo 13 begins with a narrator recounting the tragic Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts died. He continues to say that only 18 months later, man is about to walk on the moon for the first time. This would be the Apollo 11 mission. However, the Apollo 1 incident happened in January 1967, and the Apollo 11 was in July 1969. Do the math: that’s a difference of 30 months, not 18.

    As for the paint scheme shown on the Apollo 13 rocket, that’s wrong too. The movie depicts a large black band around the middle, a feature of earlier rockets. Technicians found the heat too oppressive and changed the color to white on all ships from Apollo 4 on. Also, the distinctive NASA “worm” logo is depicted on a glass window in one scene. The logo wasn’t developed until 1976.

  • You Can Get There From Here – And Very Quickly At That

    There is a breathtaking scene in Apollo 13 where the craft is seen nearing the moon. The sun is also in view. It has been pointed out, though, that judging from the alignment, there is a problem with the proportions of the three objects. The model used to simulate the ship would appear to be about the size of Australia in reference to the sun and moon. Moreover, the speed of the ship in the movie is also off. If it were traveling the way it appears, it would be going about a million miles an hour, or a thousand times Apollo 13’s actual speed.

    There are also several shots of the Apollo spacecraft shown heading straight for the moon. If this were actually the case, the ship would miss the moon by tens of thousands of miles. Since it takes 4 days to get to the moon, they would have to aim towards where the moon is going to be in 4 days. That would not be directly ahead of them.

  • Approaching The Dark Side And The Far Side Of The Moon

    Okay, this inaccuracy gets a little technical. There is a tense moment in the film where the module passes into the shadow of the moon and loses contact with Earth because it is going around to “the dark side.” However, the “far side of the moon” isn’t always dark. It gets just as much sunlight as the near side. The moon always shows the same side to us because its rotation around the Earth takes as long as it does to make a full spin on its own axis, about 27 days (and thus appears to not be spinning, although it is). When we see a dark moon, the far side that we don’t see is full.

    The far side of the moon was only half full during the Apollo 13 mission. The real craft was already in the moon’s shadow when it approached the dark side. It did not lose communication with Mission Control until it traveled the full distance to the far side of the moon.

  • There’s A Full Moon On The Rise

    During the trip, a full moon and a full Earth can be seen from the windows of the spacecraft. If the spaceship was between the Earth and the moon as depicted in the movie, however, it would not have been possible to see the full phases of each at the same time. For this to have occurred in the film, the sun would have to have been between the moon and the Earth, which it clearly wasn’t. Otherwise, the space module would have needed to be near to Venus, which it most certainly wasn’t.

    Also, on rounding the moon, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) aims his camera and refers to the landscape below as the “Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquility), where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed.” Except what he points out is not the Sea of Tranquility, it’s Hadley’s Rille, where Apollo 15 landed in July 1971.