Custom Search

Apollo 13 - the Movie vs. History

by Philip Chien

Apollo 13 logo. Apollo 13 the movie was a summer action movie - not a documentary. It takes some liberties with history to make the story flow better and fit within a 2 hour film. Here are several technical mistakes I found, many which are not in other lists of mistakes in the movie.

The key mistake most people notice immediately is the noise from the thrusters. In a vacuum there wouldn't be any way to hear them. But for some reason the folk who complain that the thrusters wouldn't make noise in space don't complain about the fact that an entire symphony orchestra follows the spacecraft around the moon! Just think of the thrusters as sound effects to enhance the action, similar to the background music.

Walter Cronkite's narration at the beginning of the movie says "a mere 18 months after the tragedy of Apollo." It was actually 30 months from the fire to Apollo 11.

The mating of the Saturn stages in the VAB happens much too fast.

The crawler which carries the Saturn V out to the launch pad is really, really, really noisy - it's rather difficult to even think about having a conversation while it's going by.

More important the Saturn V is rolled out to the launch pad a couple of months in advance, not two days before launch. Also compressed is how quickly the decision was made to swap out Mattingly and Swigert.

The actual reason for assigning Al Shepard to Apollo 14 instead of Apollo 13 was not his inner ear, but his lack of training, combined with the relatively short time until launch. Flying Shepard on a later flight would give his crew more time to train.

A T-38 with an incorrect contrail. Ron Howard notes in the DVD commentary that astronaut Dave Scott told him that the T-38 flying over the Lovell's house at a fairly low altitude would not have a visible contrail.

Gunther Wendt was not in the suit-up room on launch day, he was at the launch pad, preparing the spacecraft for the astronauts.

The fictional Ken Mattingly watches the launch. Ken Mattingly's view of the Saturn V on the pad shows the wrong side of the rocket from his location. And he'd be fried crispy, or at least have serious hearing damage if he was that close to the launch! (The actual Ken Mattingly was back in Houston by the time the Apollo 13 launch took place).

The launch of the Saturn V is a wonderfully artistic depiction, but has many mistakes. The Saturn V's engines actually ignite several seconds before zero. The build-up permits them to be checked out and if there's a problem the engines can be shut off. The gantry arms, which include electrical umbilicals and propellant lines, all separate at the same time on the actual vehicle, but certainly looked prettier opening in sequence.

A fictional scene depicts engineers trying to figure out how to use the Command Module LiOH canisters inside the Lunar Module. Dramatically it's extremely impressive when the engineer dumps a box of materials on a table for the team to figure out how to adapt the Command Module's LiOH canisters to fit into the Lunar Module. But it didn't happen, Ed Smylie had already designed the basic concept in his head by the time he arrived at Mission Control.

A minor - but should have been obvious mistake - when the astronauts build their carbon dioxide scrubber they need the plastic bag which holds the lunar coverall garments (LCG bags). They should obviously be stored in the Lunar Module, so why did they float over to the Command Module to get the bag? But you've got to admit it made a more dramatic scene with an astronaut diving into the other spacecraft.

And a couple of second later Lovel removes his sock. The jerry-rigged Carbon Dioxide scrubber with the sock already taped in place. There were a couple of editing mistakes where small scenes happens in the wrong order chronologically, but one is really important. While the crew's building the CO2 scrubber a sock is already stuffed into the LiOH (Lithium Hydroxide) container -- before the scene where Lovell removes his sock! (1:30:51 on the DVD)

When the spacecraft goes around the moon the lunar module's legs should have been opened, not closed. They had to be opened for the engine burn to put the lunar module back on the free return trajectory to come back to the Earth.

It appears that one place where not enough research was done was the moon's phases. The night of the Apollo 11 landing the moon was actually a waning crescent. And the moon set at 11:54 p.m. Houston time, before the moonwalk was completed. So Lovell's scene where he holds his thumb up had to happen well before the moonwalk, or it was an incredibly long party!

For Apollo 13 the moon was in its waxing gibbous phase. There's no way the spacecraft could have been in daylight at both the loss of signal on one side of the moon and acquisition of signal on the other side.

The astronauts apparently didn't study their lunar geography very carefully. They point out the Sea of Tranquility, their landing site, and other features while they're rounding the far side of the moon. But those features are all on the near side.

The movie 'Apollo 13' depicts the Command Module reentering the Earth's atmosphere at the wrong angle. Geometry was another case where dynamic visuals took priority over the facts. A rocket firing its engine to go to the moon is actually on the opposite side of the Earth and parallel to the Earth's surface - not pointed towards the moon as shown in the movie. In one short scene the command module is shown headed directly down towards the Earth, not towards the horizon where it should be aimed.

The reason for transferring ballast from the Lunar Module to the command module was to keep the command module properly balanced _after_ they jettisoned the Lunar Module and Service Module. At that point in the flight the vehicle was heavy - but not by a couple of hundred pounds of moon rocks. It was heavy by the weight of the Lunar Module!

The real reason for the crew to stop urine dumps was to avoid a cloud of droplets around the vehicle that would have confused radar tracking from the ground. However the ground forgot to tell the crew that it was okay to continue urine dumps after the tracking was finished

From a story-telling point-of-view it was more important for Jim Lovell to come up with the idea of aligning the LM on the Earth's terminator for the burn and for Ken Mattingly to come up with the idea for using the LM's batteries to recharge the CM's batteries than getting the facts exactly correct.

If you look incredibly closely at the Apollo 1 astronauts at the beginning of the film you can see that the lead astronaut is wearing an Apollo 13 patch which is mostly covered.

When the camera flies around the Vehicle Assembly Building you see a very nicely matted view showing a partially assembled Saturn V vehicle. Trouble is you can also see the notch in the door required for the space shuttle's tail.

There are several anachronisms. Many of the scenes were filmed at actual NASA facilities, places that have changed appearance over time. The NASA "worm" logo appears on a door - six years before it was designed. A technician at the Cape is wearing coveralls with the logo of a company which didn't exist in 1970, Mr. Coffee drip coffee makers didn't exist in 1970, Lovell's Izod shirt didn't either, etc.

There are also countless minor mistakes, like the wrong color for Lovell's car. But that's unavoidable when telling any historical story and errors like this even occur in NASA's non-fiction presentations.

These mistakes, and many more, were discovered by folks who loved the movie. Any similar list about another space movie would have far more errors. And even with all of its factual and technical mistakes "Apollo 13" is still an excellent movie.

Did you notice them?

Besides the big stars "Apollo 13" included many guest appearances both credited and uncredited.

Ron Howard's wife Sheryl, dressed as a nun. Director Ron Howard said, "The good luck charm is my wife Sheryl, who has been in all my films going back to the Super 8 days. You can't really see her too well but the good luck rule -- I made the rules. She doesn't like doing this but she humors me. She just has to be identifiable; she doesn't have to have a close-up or anything. She's a nun in the crowd."

Also in that crowd after the launch are Ron Howard's children and the real Marilyn Lovell.

Ron Howard's brother Clint Howard. Several of Ron Howard's other family members appear in the film. His brother Clint plays Sy Liebergot, one of the EECOMs (Environmental and electrical command). Their father Rance Howard plays the minister with the Lovell household and mother Jean Speegle Howard played Blanche Lovell, Jim Lovell's mother.

Ron Howard mentioned that his mother was 'upset' that she had to audition for the role, while actor/director Danny DeVito gave her a part in one of his movies without requiring an audition.

Jeff Kluger, the co-author of the book "Lost Moon" appears as the science reporter on the television show which performs the demonstration with the basketball and piece of paper.

Jim Lovell in a cameo as the captain of the aircraft carrier. Executive Producer Todd Hallowell appears at the jerk in the Mustang who wants to race Lovell.

But the most famous cameo in "Apollo 13" is Jim Lovell as the commander of the aircraft carrier Iwo Jima. He even gets to shake hands with Tom Hanks playing himself.

Where were you?

We all know where Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert were located when the explosion took place - aboard the command module Odyssey travelling towards the moon. But where were the other folks involved with the mission or the movie?

Ken Mattingly was not drunk at home in bed as depicted in the movie "Apollo 13". He was working in Mission Control.

Well all remember that before Ron Howard became one of Hollywood's most successful directors he was a child actor, staring in series like "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days". He said, "I was doing an episode of "Gunsmoke" and way out in a desert somewhere [when the Apollo 13 incident took place]. And the little hotel we were staying in didn't have a TV. So my recollection is people standing around on the set with radios trying to get updates and staying abreast that way. And I do remember watching the splashdown [on TV] and all of the waiting - seeing if the heat shield held."

Future actor Tom Hanks was a kid growing up in San Francisco. He said, "On this day I was at school waiting to rush home to watch the whole Apollo program. When I woke up in the morning and saw the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle it was as almost as big a shock to me as finding out that Robert Kennedy had been shot. We had to talk about it at school and I ran home. I watched [ABC reporter] Jules Bergman until I had to go to bed that night. It was a big deal for me."

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Dave Scott served as the technical advisor for the movie. He said, "I can tell you exactly where I was [when the explosion took place]. I was in my living room. I had the NASA flight director's loop on the radio and I was listening and heard them call down the problem. I told my wife 'they have a problem' and went over to Mission Control. But to me, when they called down there were about 4 or 5 caution lights, and I realized they've got a big problem. It was a cliffhanger. Sitting around watching everything which had to happen to get them back.

If you know the systems, not just the hardware but also the people systems, the mission control center and all of the contractors and the way we had practiced these kinds of things [crisis and problems] in simulations and the teamwork that goes into it, we'll get them back. I had confidence, I wasn't worried about not getting them back. I felt pretty sad that when they couldn't landing on the moon because my turn was coming up [Apollo 15] but I was thinking, boy that's tough. But as far as getting back I had every confidence in the world that the system would get them back."

Screen captures from the "Apollo 13" DVD, copyright 1995, 2002 Universal Pictures.


Back to the main article.

About the author

Philip Chien is a regular contributor to

copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved.