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.
The next jolt came soon after. Two days before launch, NASA officials approach Lovell with some bad news: One of the backup astronauts caught the measles from his kid a few weeks earlier, and the entire Apollo 13 crew has been exposed. Lovell and Fred Haise, the lunar-module pilot, are immune because they had the infection as children. Ken Mattingly, the third astronaut on the mission, isn’t. He isn’t exhibiting symptoms, but they could show up when the crew is in outer space, hurtling toward the moon. “Jim, that’s a lousy time for a fever,” the director of flight crew operations tells a stunned Hanks.
This really happened. Mattingly didn’t end up getting sick with the measles, but Apollo 13 flew to space without him just in case, finding a last-minute replacement in Jack Swigert.
Astronauts are always quarantined for about two weeks before launch, even today, to prevent exactly this risk. (In the early moon missions, astronauts spent weeks in isolation after coming home, too; back then, doctors worried that the space travelers could bring home moon germs that would threaten us terrestrials.) Space agencies are reevaluating these procedures today in the face of the coronavirus. A recent crew—two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut—faced a stricter isolation than usual before blasting off to the International Space Station from Russia’s launch facilities this past week.
“Had I been in normal quarantine, I probably could have gone out to some restaurants and left the immediate parameters of the Star City area and just been smart about where we went,” Chris Cassidy, the NASA astronaut, told reporters before he launched. “But not this time.”
After Mattingly gets pulled off the mission, a moment played beautifully onscreen by a sad but stoic Gary Sinise, the rest of the action, though stress-inducing, is a welcome reprieve from the present moment, the kind that only a movie with a guaranteed happy ending can bring. Thanks to a manufacturing mistake made years before the mission, the spacecraft’s oxygen tank ruptures, venting the precious gas into space. With a moon landing no longer an option, the crew spends days trying to stay alive on a return trip home rife with even more scares. By the time the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, I was tearing up, overcome with admiration for NASA’s unstoppable drive and Ron Howard’s casting choices. “Ed Harris crying is making me cry,” I scrawled in my notebook.
Although the film was based on a book by Lovell—who is 92 years old today—it is, of course, a Hollywood version of the events, with some exaggerations for dramatic effect. The real Ken Mattingly once said that NASA engineers had rehearsed many more emergency simulations than the movie implies, and had even simulated some fixes that their movie counterparts appear to make up on the spot. Gene Kranz, the flight director portrayed by Harris, didn’t actually declare that “failure is not an option,” and the film’s most famous line—“Houston, we have a problem,” was delivered a little differently. Haise denies puking after launch.
But on the whole, Apollo 13 is pretty accurate. Lovell’s wife really did drop her wedding ring down the shower drain before her husband lifted off. The astronauts did shiver for days after cutting the heat to conserve power for their trip home. They did build a makeshift air filter out of random items on the ship, including duct tape and socks, so that they could scrub out a buildup of carbon dioxide that grew more dangerous with every exhale. And humanity really was captivated. “Perhaps never in human history has the entire world been so united by such a global drama,” Walter Cronkite says in the film, in his famous, rumbling news-anchor voice.
I’m not the only one making connections between a 50-year-old mission and our modern-day pandemic. Haise, who is 86 now, is thinking about them, too. (Swigert, the command-module pilot, died in 1982, at age 51, of cancer.) “The lesson of Apollo 13 is what we had to do to survive,” he told the space historian and writer Robert Pearlman in a recent interview. “We had to be willing to be able to change the norm, if you will, because we had to deal with a lot of new things and new procedures to work around and get through it all. And that’s exactly what the world and people are having to deal with today.”
Early on in the film, Lovell hosts a watch party at his home for the first moon landing. After the guests watch Neil Armstrong climb down the lunar lander and step onto the surface on a grainy black-and-white television, Lovell says: “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon.” As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help fixating on how much the world has changed—not in the past 50 years, but in the past few months. The sight of crowds of happy spectators at Cape Canaveral, gathered to witness the takeoff, triggered an involuntarily cringe. Even small gestures felt sacrilegious, like when Haise, all suited up before launch, spits out his gum in a worker’s hand before someone puts his helmet on. I wouldn’t have thought twice about these moments even a month ago.
We’ve entered a new era. There is no doubt, to use Lovell’s line at the watch party, that we’re living in the “from now on.”