The sleek white corporate jet taxied to a halt at Ellington Field in southeast Houston on April 4, 1994. A group of men were ushered out the door of the jet and into a van, which took them to the main administration building of NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Waiting on the front steps were important-looking NASA officials with colored identification badges on their lapels. To an outsider, it looked like something big was happening, something very big. The scene could have been straight out of the old days, when presidents and Cabinet members and congressmen arrived to behold the glory of America’s greatest technological triumph: its space program.
The NASA officials tried not to look nervous. The back door of the van swung open. And as everyone held his breath, out walked Tom Hanks, soon to be known the world over as Forrest Gump, in blue jeans and a sport coat, clutching a camera. Right behind him was Ron Howard, once the beloved Opie Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show, now a blockbuster movie director. And then came Tom Pollock, the powerful head of Universal Studios. Hollywood had landed.
For the first time, two distinctive American subcultures, NASA and the film industry, were joining forces. Their mission, as it were, was to make Apollo 13, the $50 million thriller that tells the story of three astronauts who nearly perished in deep space in 1970 when their ship’s oxygen tank exploded. Twenty-five years later, on the steps of the Johnson Space Center administration building, the commander of that ship stepped forward and put out his hand toward Hanks. “Tom,” he said, “Jim Lovell.”
Hanks froze. For a few seconds, one of the world’s most famous movie stars was unable to summon speech. Growing up in Oakland, Hanks had been the classic space nerd, the kind of kid who built the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space kits. During spaceflights, he raced home from school to watch those long static television shots of young Mission Control flight directors in their short-sleeved white shirts and skinny black ties staring at their computer screens. In the same way that baseball fanatics know every center fielder who has played for the New York Yankees since the fifties, Hanks knew the names of all the astronauts and the missions they had flown. To him, James A. Lovell, Jr., was a genuine legend. Hanks shook Lovell’s hand. Then he did what every groupie does: He held up his camera and took Lovell’s photograph.
In the past, Hollywood has preferred to invent its space movies, usually creating science fiction tales like 2001: A Space Odyssey. While The Right Stuff focused on the personalities of the early test pilots who became NASA’s first astronauts, no film has ever tried to capture what spaceflight was really like. Capricorn One, the one modern-day movie about a NASA mission to Mars, was based on the premise that the entire operation had been faked in a desert in Arizona. “People in Hollywood don’t have meetings and talk about real life,” says Texas Monthly contributing editor Al Reinert, who was one of Apollo 13’s screenwriters. “They sit around and talk about their fantasies.”
But the Apollo 13 story—how three astronauts made a heroic race home in a crippled spaceship—was simply too dramatic to be ignored by filmmakers. Hanks himself has gushed that the flight of Lovell and his two crew mates was “a saga as great as anything the Greeks put down on paper, or any story of Shakespeare or the Bible.” And though many moviegoers might see Apollo 13 as simply a good summer adventure flick, the film will give others the chance to recall what already feels like an archaic period of American life—a golden age when a group of brilliant engineers and astronauts, living in those raw, new neighborhoods of Clear Lake, were gripped with a grandiose fever to get to the moon. It was a time when technology meant something other than the Internet or a five-hundred-channel TV set. It was a time when the word “Houston” exerted a thrilling force in people’s lives. In a strange way, despite a war in Vietnam and race riots at home, it was a time when some of us believed that a brave new world was at hand.
“Look at that,” Ron Howard tells me, pointing out a film clip of Mission Control during a marathon session at a New York editing studio. “During the Apollo missions, those Mission Controllers were doing math by hand. They used slide rules. Slide rules!” In a flannel shirt, baggy pants, and a baseball cap, 41-year-old Howard looks like an awestruck teenager. “Do you realize my laptop has far, far more power than the computers that were on board the command and lunar modules of Apollo 13?”
For the making of the movie, Howard relied on a variety of high-tech Hollywood gadgets, including computerized models of spaceships and digitized special effects to recreate Apollo 13’s lift-off. To get unprecedented footage of actors actually floating in air, he persuaded NASA to let him use its KC-135 plane, an astronaut training vehicle that can simulate weightlessness by flying to a height of about 36,000 feet and then nearly straight down. He also hired an array of high-powered actors, all of whom campaigned hard to get their roles. Beside two-time Oscar winner Hanks as Jim Lovell, the film features Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as Lovell’s fellow astronauts Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. Oscar nominee Gary Sinise plays Ken Mattingly, the astronaut who was removed from the flight at the last minute. Kathleen Quinlan plays Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, and Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, the fierce flight director of Mission Control known for his crew cut and his starched, white vests.
In other words, Howard gathered all the elements for another one of his trademark movies: great characters, innovative production techniques, and a gripping story line. But on this day in the editing studio, the movie seems to be the last thing on his mind. “Do you realize that the guys in Mission Control who ran these missions were in their twenties and early thirties?” he asks. “NASA basically handed the moon program to a bunch of kids.”
For those who lived through the heady days of the space program, it is hard to believe what has become of it. The original Mission Control, once a symbol of American ingenuity, is now mothballed on the third floor of the Mission Control Center. (A duplicate version on the second floor is used for shuttle flights and is about to be replaced by a more updated control center.) Except for a space museum adjoining the NASA complex and the occasional documentary on public TV, there are few visible memories left of our great race to the moon. The most prominent might be the 36-story Saturn 5 booster, which was built for the aborted Apollo 18 flight and now sits like a lawn ornament at the entrance to the Johnson Space Center.
Today, nearly all of the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon are in their sixties. Lovell is 67 years old. “It seems like the other day when I was preparing for a flight,” he said over breakfast one recent morning, looking as lean and clear-eyed as he was when he commanded Apollo 13. Obviously, he hasn’t lost any of what one writer described as his “Ahab-like obsession” with the moon. “I really feel like I could get in a suit and get in the capsule and do it all right now,” Lovell says, gazing out a window. “God, time moves fast. ”
Lovell and other NASA veterans are perplexed when a reporter asks, “Was it all worth it?” To them, space travel remains the most wondrous of enterprises. But the fact is that by the time Apollo 13 blasted off on April 11, 1970—less than a year after Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon—Americans were already losing their desire to fund a major space program. Articles were published showing how many hospitals or new schools could be built for the money spent on just one moon shot. Right before the Apollo 13 flight, T-shirts were sold in New York’s Times Square showing an astronaut standing on the moon. The caption read: “So what?”
By the third evening of the Apollo 13 flight, the mission was considered so humdrum that none of the TV networks showed the evening broadcast that Lovell conducted from outer space. But at 9:07 p.m. Houston time, Lovell, Swigert, and Haise heard a loud bang and watched the power drop in two of the ship’s three fuel cells. No one knew whether there had been an explosion or whether a meteor had hit the ship. But when Lovell saw the gauges for the command module’s oxygen tanks heading toward zero, he knew he had to move fast. In fifteen minutes, he and Swigert had transferred the key computerized navigational information from the command module to the lunar module (a job that usually took more than an hour). By 10:50, the three crew mates had crammed themselves into the spidery lunar excursion module, even though it was designed for only two people and held 45 hours’ worth of oxygen. They were almost 200,000 miles from earth.
After a series of intense meetings and slide rule calculations, Mission Control decided that the spacecraft could continue around the moon and gain enough speed to slingshot back to earth. And so, for the next four days, the world was transfixed. The astronauts had to make three critical course corrections by doing engine burns at just the right moment. They had made another engine burn on the far side of the moon to increase their speed. If they couldn’t control their crippled capsule, they would be doomed to an eternity of floating in an elongated orbit around the earth. If they did control it, they could still freeze to death—the capsule was unheated—or die from inhaling their own carbon dioxide. And there was a great chance that they would be incinerated when they reentered the earth’s atmosphere. But thankfully, on a sunny afternoon six days after the mission began, Apollo 13 parachuted into the Pacific Ocean with all three crew members alive.
For a while, the phrase “Houston, we’ve got a problem”—a line that Swigert uttered to alert Mission Control to the oxygen tank explosion—was part of the American vernacular. If a beer keg emptied out at a fraternity party, some kid inevitably yelled, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” Everyone seemed fascinated by this heroic story of a small group of men faced with a potential catastrophe. Yet it was not long before NASA went into a defensive mode about the mission. Officials didn’t like talking about the flight, especially after a review board criticized the agency for “serious oversight” in the design and testing of the oxygen tanks. The spine-tingling rescue of the astronauts had suddenly become an embarrassment. The Apollo 13 command module ended up in an aviation museum in Paris, France.
Lovell, too, disappeared into near-anonymity. After leaving NASA in 1973, he ran a Houston tugboat company and then became president of a small telephone equipment company—not exactly glamorous jobs, compared with the high- profile positions in politics and corporate life occupied by other ex-astronauts. When he retired in 1991, he moved with his wife, Marilyn, to Horseshoe Bay, a wealthy resort development outside Austin. It was a good life. He gave a few motivational speeches about Apollo 13 to business groups, telling them how teamwork and training and individual commitment had prevented a disaster. He hunted and flew his airplane. And once a year or so, he would talk to his old NASA buddies, including Armstrong and Pete Conrad, two of the first men to walk on the moon. They were still a competitive bunch, these ex-fighter pilots, and they never missed a chance to tease Lovell. “Well, Jim, you came close,” they’d joke. “You at least got to circle the moon before turning back. ”
Although by 1970 Lovell had spent more time in space than anyone else alive—he had flown on two Gemini missions and the famous Apollo 8 mission, which orbited the moon during Christmas 1968—his dream since his teenage years had been to walk on the moon. “It was why you became an astronaut,” he says. “If you didn’t get there, it was hard not to think you had failed in some way.” Whenever he would look at the moon, he felt cursed.
As for his crew mates, Swigert, who had gotten involved in Colorado politics after his NASA career, died of cancer in 1982 just after winning a congressional race; while Haise, who became an executive with the defense contractor Grumman Aerospace (now Northrop Grumman), rarely spoke about his experiences as an astronaut, telling people he had moved on with his life. But Lovell, unwilling to have his career relegated to a quirky footnote in the history books, decided to spend his retirement writing a book about himself and the Apollo 13 mission. In truth, while there had been plenty of astronauts’ biographies published twenty years earlier, it was hard to believe that anyone would buy such a book in the nineties. It was practically impossible to get the media to pay attention to space shuttle missions. Lovell’s book had the makings of one of those self- published memoirs that older men write for their families at the end of their lives.
Yet by sheer coincidence, as Lovell began to research the book, he received a letter from Jeffrey Kluger, an editor and science writer at Discover magazine. Kluger said he was interested in doing a book on Apollo 13. Stunned at this stroke of luck, Lovell suggested they collaborate, and in January 1993 they sent a ten-page book proposal and a sample chapter to their respective agents. Just to see if there was any interest in an outer- space movie, the proposal was shown around Hollywood.
Luck was about to strike Jim Lovell for a second time. One of the Hollywood people who heard about the project was Michael Bostick, a senior vice president at Imagine Entertainment. Michael happened to be the son of Jerry Bostick, a former flight controller at Mission Control who was in the control room when Apollo 13’s oxygen tank exploded. Against all odds, a major motion picture was about to come to life.
Growing up in the sixties in Clear Lake, Michael Bostick was not exactly captivated by America’s space program. “I thought my dad’s job was sort of cool because he got to go to Mission Control and stare at a big television screen,” says the reedy 33-year-old, who has thick brown eyebrows and engagingly awkward hand gestures. “But I always got bored because the film from space was fuzzy and in black and white.” The oddball of NASA’s children, Michael got mad at his mother when she woke him to watch Neil Armstrong’s historic 1969 walk on the moon. Instead of playing astronaut like the other kids in the neighborhood, Michael preferred staging plays in the garage. He told his parents he wanted to move to Paris and become an artist.
But after working for a few years in advertising and publishing in San Antonio, Michael was accepted by the University of Southern California film school, and he and his wife moved to Hollywood. In 1990 he was hired by Imagine, whose track record of hits (Parenthood, Kindergarten Cop) made it one of the most respected companies in the film business. Imagine’s principals—fast-talking, power- lunching producer Brian Grazer and easygoing director Ron Howard—liked stories that had been invented from scratch. Grazer had made a name for himself when he remarked one day while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, “I wonder what would happen if I fell in love with a mermaid.” Just like that, the idea was born for Imagine’s 1984 hit Splash.
When Michael read the Lovell-Kluger book proposal, he called his father, who had left NASA in 1985 to work for the Houston division of Grumman Aerospace. “Hi, Dad,” he said. “What do you remember about Apollo 13?”
“Is this really my son I’m speaking to?” Jerry asked. He had not forgotten the family vacation to Florida two decades before, when he had arranged a private tour of Cape Canaveral. Little Michael had refused to get out of the car, tearfully telling his father that he only wanted to see Disney World.
“Dad,” said a now grown-up Michael, “I think the Apollo 13 story would make a great movie.”
Jerry Bostick turned pale. At NASA, he had been one of those straitlaced engineering types—“a purist,” Michael says— who got angry whenever anyone said anything inaccurate about the space program. When James Michener published his novel Space, Jerry read a chapter, marched outside, and burned the book in his driveway. “I’ve hated every movie about space I’ve seen,” he admits. “They’ve all tried to sensationalize historical events that were exciting enough in reality.” Jerry still gets sick to his stomach whenever he is reminded of Houston, We’ve Got a Problem, the 1974 TV movie about Apollo 13. Instead of focusing on the mission itself, the plot revolved around three neurotic Mission Controllers and their pill-popping wives. “My God,” says a still-disgusted Jerry.
Yet here was his own son wanting to turn the Apollo 13 flight into a feature film. Jerry tried to reason with Michael, telling him that no one would pay to watch a movie about three guys stuck in a space capsule. He said audiences would never understand the highly technical talk that went back and forth between Mission Control and the spacecraft.
“Oh, no, you’re wrong,” said Michael. “It’s got everything: jeopardy and rescue and a great happy ending. Dad, I should have paid more attention when I was a kid.”
“Michael,” Jerry said, “if this movie comes out badly, all my NASA friends are going to hate me. I’m telling you, don’t screw this up or I’ll kill you.”
Michael went to his bosses, Grazer and Howard, and suggested they option the rights to the upcoming book, Lost Moon. The two had to confess that they barely had any memories of Apollo 13. Howard could only recall that during the mission, he was sixteen and filming a guest appearance on Gunsmoke. “We were staying out in the desert and the hotel didn’t have a TV,” Howard says. “And all I remember was that people were holding transistor radios to their ears, trying to keep up with the flight.”
Yet Howard and Grazer were ultimately persuaded to bid for the book because of Michael’s stories about the old NASA culture. “I realized there was something to this story when Michael told us that the NASA employees considered their work to save Apollo 13 to be their greatest triumph,” says Howard. “Despite all their training, here was a situation in which ingenuity and improvisation saved the day.” Howard also had a love for submarine movies such as Das Boot. If a vessel underwater can be that riveting to audiences, he began telling Imagine’s staffers, then so can a space capsule. Grazer, a man blessed with the gift of summation, simply said, “Astronauts and Ron Howard: the perfect all-American movie.”
Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, the grapevine was already buzzing about Lost Moon, and other producers were interested. “It’s hard to explain why a story that has sat around for twenty-five years suddenly becomes a hot movie property,” says Howard. “Maybe it’s because everyone hears everyone else is interested. Maybe it’s because, after all this time, the Apollo era suddenly became interesting again. ”
After an intense bidding war, Imagine purchased the movie rights to the then-unpublished book for a price said to be upwards of $500,000. Lovell was absolutely giddy. No one had ever wanted to make a major feature about Neil Armstrong’s or Pete Conrad’s successful moon landings.
“Jim, who do you think should play you?” Howard asked Lovell at their first meeting. Lovell did not hesitate. “Kevin Costner,” he said. Not only did he look like Costner back in 1970, but he also liked Costner’s rugged, he-man image.
Yet Lovell also wanted to be sure that Hollywood stuck to the facts. He wanted the screenwriters, for example, to portray him as a family man—the father of four children, not one of those stereotypical wild-ass astronauts who liked to drive fast cars. (Lovell was indeed a committed husband and father. He also drove a Corvette.)
At one point, Lovell warned Michael how upset he would be if the depiction of the mission wasn’t accurate.
“Don’t worry,” Michael said. “My father has already promised to kill me.”
A few days later, William Broyles, Jr., the founding editor of Texas Monthly and the creator of the TV series China Beach, dropped by the Imagine offices to pitch a romantic comedy he wanted to write about a couple in New York. Imagine passed on the pitch, but shortly after that meeting, Bostick suggested Broyles for the Apollo 13 project.
Broyles, who had grown up in Baytown, 25 miles from the Johnson Space Center, told Michael, “I was born to write this movie.” He also said he had just the man to write it with him: Al Reinert, whose 1989 documentary about the Apollo flights, For All Mankind, was nominated for an Academy award and who, according to Broyles, knows more about NASA than any other journalist in the world. Reinert suggested a different angle to Apollo 13 than the one Lovell and Kluger hinted at in their book: the story of astronaut Ken Mattingly, who was originally scheduled to fly the mission but was bounced a week before lift-off when he was exposed to German measles. Replacing him was Jack Swigert, a bachelor who was known around NASA for having a girl in every airport. Although devastated that he had been removed from the mission, Mattingly raced back to NASA after the oxygen tank explosion and spent all his time in a command module simulator, trying to figure out how to hold the ship together so the crew could reenter the atmosphere. (Mattingly eventually got to the moon on another flight, Apollo 16, then left NASA to run the aerospace booster program for General Dynamics in San Diego.)
Broyles and Reinert also added the story of Marilyn Lovell, the classic astronaut’s wife, who calmed her kids and maintained her composure around the press but occasionally slipped into the bathroom, locked the door, and prayed for her husband to be brought home safely. The more the screenwriters researched the story, the more they realized they weren’t going to have to make anything up (one purely fictional scene takes place early in the movie, when Lovell and his crew mates are at a party watching Armstrong’s Apollo 11 landing). Broyles and Reinert also threw in liberal amounts of technical jargon that the audience will never come close to understanding. One of the more climactic moments in the movie comes when Mattingly gets on the radio to Swigert and says, “Now, panel 5: Circuit breaker caution and warning, Main B, closed.” Such dialogue may seem obtuse, “but our goal was to immerse the viewer in another world,” says Broyles. “Even if it’s terminology you’re not familiar with, it still is going to sound fascinating, in part because you realize that this is really what happened. ”
When Broyles and Reinert completed the second draft of their screenplay in January 1994, Kevin Costner was already committed to making another Universal film, Waterworld. But soon after, Tom Hanks heard about the script and got his agent, Richard Lovett of Creative Artists Agency, to get him a copy. Hanks told Ron Howard—his friend since they had worked together on Splash—that there were four roles he had always wanted to play: a baseball player, a soldier, a cowboy, and an astronaut. He had been a baseball-player-turned-coach in A League of Their Own and a soldier in Forrest Gump. The cowboy role was still to come. Now Hanks finally saw his chance not only to play an astronaut, but to play one of his heroes: Jim Lovell.
With effervescent Hanks on board, the screenwriters toned down the hard edges in their depiction of Lovell. (“It was like we had originally written a movie for John Wayne,” says Reinert, “and they hired Jimmy Stewart.”) Still, those who watched Hanks and Lovell during their first meeting in 1994 were amazed at the way Hanks immediately warmed to the character. He perfectly imitated Lovell’s flat astronaut voice and the way he walked across a room, bent slightly forward, as if nothing was going to get in his way. Hanks also spent four days at Lovell’s home, studying him, flying with him in his airplane.
Howard, meanwhile, became obsessed with recreating life inside an Apollo capsule. He had the actors playing astronauts go through space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where they ate astronaut food, flew space shuttle simulators, stared at moon rocks, and learned about the more than five hundred levers, toggles, and switches in the command and lunar landing modules. After learning from Lovell that astronauts are most often asked, “How did you go to the bathroom in space?” Howard decided to include a scene showing an astronaut urinating. For the scenes in which the astronauts head back to earth in an unheated capsule, Howard had a Universal Studios soundstage refrigerated to 34 degrees so that puffs of smoke would come from the actors’ lips as they spoke. When there were problems with the dialogue and he needed something else for the actors to say, Howard didn’t consult the screenwriters—he turned to the actual transcripts of the Apollo 13 flight.
To help capture the accuracy of that flight, Howard surrounded himself with technical advisers, including former Apollo astronaut Dave Scott (the seventh man to walk on the moon) and two former Mission Controllers: Gerry Griffin and—that’s right—the purist, Jerry Bostick. When Jerry read the script, he quickly faxed his son eight pages of corrections. He pointed out, for instance, that there was a detail wrong about the booster stages during the scene when Apollo 13 lifts off. And he was disturbed that the script had a systems flight controller say a line that would have really been said by someone else in Mission Control.
“Okay, Dad,” Michael said, “the single letter of protest will roll in.”
“Hey,” said Jerry, “what if this movie is reviewed by someone from Aviation Week and Space Technology?” Michael said that he didn’t think aviation magazines reviewed movies.
“Well,” insisted Jerry, “you can be sure there’s going to be some technical people coming to the theater to look for exactly these kinds of mistakes.”
At Howard’s behest, Jerry flew to California to consult during part of the filming at Universal Studios. When he saw the set of Mission Control built by the design crew, he was stunned. It was an exact replica, down to the ceiling tiles and pale green computer consoles and yellow-brown wallpaper, all bathed in the same shadowless fluorescent lighting. They even had the same ballpoint pens he had used back in 1970. At one point, Jerry was so convinced that he was back at his old haunt that he headed down the hallway, searching for an elevator that used to take him to his office.
Not surprisingly, NASA officials couldn’t have been more pleased about the movie if a delegation from Congress had arrived to announce it was doubling the agency’s budget. They saw a chance to get the kind of positive publicity they hadn’t received in years. When the producers and actors flew to the Johnson Space Center for their grand NASA tour, Carolyn Huntoon, the head of the space center, made sure to meet the group and give her personal blessing to the movie. According to one eyewitness at that meeting, when Universal’s chief, Tom Pollock, told her, “This movie is going to do for you what Top Gun did for the U.S. Air Force,” Huntoon nearly swooned.
“I have no idea if Apollo 13 is going to be a hit,” says Ron Howard. “But I have to admit that this was the most awe-inspiring project I’ve ever worked on. From the beginning, there were no problems on the set, no ego battles, no huge delays, no battles over the script. I think everyone involved realized that we were telling a story of a unique and glorious moment in American life.” Indeed, whether the movie succeeds or fails at the box office, Apollo 13 might be our last link to a time when a community of young government employees looked at one another and said, “We can do this.” If only for a brief time, the space program was that rare thing in American life: a universally shared experience, a feeling of uncynical patriotism.
“I have to admit that I never had a real understanding of what my father really did until we started this movie,” says Michael Bostick, picking over a plate of penne pasta in a sleek Beverly Hills restaurant—the very kind of restaurant where Jerry Bostick would never feel comfortable. “I know it’s supposed to be movies that create dreams for people. Tet all my three-year-old son wants to do now is go outside in his little space suit and play astronaut. And at the end of the filming, Ed Harris invited my father out to his beach house. My dad! No actor has ever invited me to his beach house. ”
For his part, Jerry says he has gained a deeper appreciation of his son’s work, and he is certain the movie is going to be a success. “I’m going to the special screening they’re supposed to have for all the old guys from Mission Control, and I’m nervous,” he says. “I know somebody there will find a mistake in the movie, and I know I’ll get the blame.” And what about Lovell, who saw his personal dream of a moon walk snatched away? Perhaps to get his goat just one more time, Pete Conrad, the former Apollo 12 commander, auditioned for a small role in the movie. When Lovell heard what his old rival was doing, he was less than enthusiastic. This was, after all, his movie.
“It’s obvious that Jim Lovell sees this movie as redemption for a mission that went wrong,” says Reinert. “You ought to see him swagger around his astronaut buddies now. This is his moment, and he’s going to enjoy every bit of it. And why shouldn’t he?”
In public, of course, Lovell appears to be utterly unaffected by the hoopla surrounding Apollo 13. That is the astronaut code: to act nonchalant at all times, to show as little emotion as possible. “Look,” he told me, “I know it’s an honor that Tom Hanks is playing me. I’m not unappreciative at all.”
Lovell paused and then shot me a confident, unashamed look. “But I’d give every bit of this up right this minute for one more chance to get to the moon. I’m not kidding. I could be ready to go tomorrow.”