47 Great Movie Moments #19 – Apollo 13

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #19, we jump forward from 1925 to 1995 and visit a movie that is telling a story from 1970.

Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by:  Ron Howard

An accident leaves the three astronauts of the Apollo 13 space mission to the moon in dire straits.  Hundreds of people in mission control work frantically with the astronauts to keep them alive and return them to earth  safely.


The Set-up

In an effort to save power, all of the shipboard systems for the Apollo 13 Command Module (the “Odyssey”) were shut down until the ship was in a position for the astronauts to use it to return to earth.  These systems must be restarted from cold in order for the crew to return safely.  The original command module pilot for the Apollo 13 mission, Ken Mattingly, was grounded shortly before take-off because of concern over exposure to the measles.  As a result, he is part of the team working in the flight simulator to figure out how all the ship-board systems can be restarted without overtaxing the batteries.

The efforts of hundreds of NASA workers, not to mention the three stranded astronauts, have resulted in the Apollo 13 vessel being able to get back to earth from the moon, but it will all be fruitless if the Command Module cannot be powered up again for re-entry….

The Moment

Ken Mattingly sits inside the cramped simulator, frustrated at his inability to find a sequence for powering the ship’s systems without overstraining the battery, even just by 4 amps.  After hours of effort in the ship’s simulator, he is unable to come up with an answer, and tensions are high everywhere.  But then a possibility occurs to him–the Command Module is designed to feed power to the Lunar Module of the ship if necessary, so why not reverse it?  A lot of power will be lost in the transfer, but all they need is 4 amps….

With time growing shorter every moment, Ken tries to the sequence.  Controller John Aaron and others monitor the amperage meter on the battery.  It hovers close to the red line…but doesn’t go over.  “I think we’ve got it, buddy,” says John.

Apollo 13 is a movie that finds its strength by showing elements of genuine heroism coming from a bunch of intelligent but otherwise ordinary people who are all just working really really hard to save the lives of three people.  As such, there are probably about a dozen scenes that I could highlight, but this is one of my favorites because of the gravity that actors like Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly) and Loren Dean (a flight controller named John who is apparently very loosely based on John Aaron) are able to convey, even while keeping things very natural.  I’ve also got to give a shout-out to the movie’s score, by James Horner (one of my favorite, thanks to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) lurks nervously in the background during scenes like this before pushing itself forward in punctuations of percussion and brass.

The Payoff

Mattingly and Aaron race over to the Mission Control to deliver the power-up procedures to the nervously awaiting astronauts, and we are into the climax of our story.

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