History is sometimes a tricky thing. And when you mix history with Hollywood, the truth can become a casualty—even in cases where movies take pains to be accurate.
The 1995 film Apollo 13 has been praised for its accuracy, but many people still wonder if director Ron Howard played up the tension among the astronauts and inside mission control to heighten the movie's emotional impact. Bill Parkinson, an attorney working for the U.S. Department of Justice in Dallas, is one of the wonderers. "Apollo 13 portrayed the capsule's reentry as protracted beyond all expectations," he writes. "As a teenage junkie for all things aeronautical, I followed that flight and seem to recall that the flight's descent path was shallower than ideal, and that the blackout period was indeed much longer than it should have been. [But] I'm certain the movie embellished the scenario for dramatic effect. Can you help before I tear out what little is left of my hair when the movie is on?"
We turned to someone who should be able to give us the straight scoop: Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz, now retired in Texas. (For those who don't know, Kranz was the well-dressed character in the film played by Ed Harris.)
After an onboard oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon on April 13, 1970, the Apollo 13 crew had to abort their mission and return to Earth. The final ordeal of the flight was a radio silence, or blackout, caused by ionized air surrounding the command module during its superheated reentry through the atmosphere. With no radio signal, there was "no way to tell" how the crew and ship were faring, Kranz says. "There was no telemetry from Odyssey until the end of blackout," he recalls. "Take a look at the picture of the flight directors during blackout....There was some distress, but nothing we could do about it." To make matters worse, the blackout went on longer than usual because the reentry path for Apollo 13 was longer and shallower than normal. "Per my mission log it started at 142:39 and ended at 142:45— a total of six minutes," Kranz relates. "Blackout was 1:27 longer than predicted…. Toughest minute and a half we ever had."
Henry Cooper's 1973 book Thirteen: The Flight That Failed describes the tension: "After three minutes of blackout, Kranz put through a call to [lead retro-fire officer Chuck] Deiterich to find out how much longer they had to wait. Deiterich said it should be over in another thirty seconds. At the end of thirty seconds, there was still no word from the astronauts, and Deiterich began to get concerned. Thirty seconds later, the astronauts still hadn't reported in, and Deiterich was alarmed."
Even when they finally heard astronaut Jack Swigert's voice over the radio, confirming that the crew had survived, the controllers didn't say a word, just kept silent until the capsule splashed down in the Pacific nine minutes later, according to Cooper's account. (In the movie, as soon as the astronauts are proven to be alive, the cheering starts.) At 12:07 p.m. Houston time on April 17, Odyssey hit water and the flight controllers finally cheered.
At least one contemporary account did downplay the drama of that day. BBC reporter Reginald Turnill wrote that after Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise moved into the command module in preparation for their return, "it was a familiar reentry procedure." Kranz scoffs at this. "We had a 500-plus item checklist that had been written only hours before," he says. "Power and water were critical, we did an emergency trajectory correction maneuver, and a battery was predicted to fail about the time the chutes came out. Nothing about the reentry was routine in mission control."
It seems, then, that the movie got the reentry scene mostly right. But that's not to say Howard has a perfect record. On the tenth anniversary DVD of Apollo 13, Lovell and his wife Marilyn detail several inaccuracies, including the inflated role of astronaut Ken Mattingly (whose work is an amalgamation of efforts undertaken by several astronauts and engineers), exaggerated doubts about Swigert's role in the mission, and the fact that the engine burn that corrected their course was not, as the movie showed, aimed in the direction of Earth.
Oh well. It should count for something that people take the movie's accuracy so seriously. No one has these debates about Willow.