About this time 50 years ago today, three men launched toward the moon on Apollo 13, oblivious to the harrowing turn their journey would take. It’s a big anniversary, the way the anniversary of Apollo 11, which made the first moon landing, was last summer. But it’s difficult to commemorate the half-century anniversary of this mission in the usual ways.
Like nearly everything else, museums are closed. The Smithsonian could project an image of the massive Saturn rocket on the Washington Monument again, but no one would probably come out to see it. So, in the disorienting, social-distancing whirlwind of the past few weeks, I decided to observe the anniversary by engaging in my favorite coping mechanism of the pandemic era: I watched a movie.
Although I’ve been writing about space exploration for several years, I’d never seen Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s Oscar-nominated 1995 film about that fateful mission. Ah, I thought, here’s a good way to forget reality for two hours.
That hope was trampled about two minutes in. There, driving a red Corvette through the suburbs of Houston, was Tom Hanks, one of the first celebrities to come down with COVID-19. The news of his diagnosis in early March, which feels like a thousand years ago, really brought home the frightening reality of the new coronavirus for many Americans. The most recent experience many of us have of the actor is his Instagram posts from quarantine in Australia while he recovered from a fever and chills. In Apollo 13, however, Hanks is young, unwrinkled, and dashing as Mission Commander Jim Lovell.