Apollo 13: When flights to the moon stopped being boring

Apollo 13: When flights to the moon stopped being boring
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The flight of Apollo 13 was so compelling that it became the subject of the first major motion picture to come out of the moon program. The movie has some interesting lessons to teach about the political dimension of spaceflight.

An illuminating part of the movie “Apollo 13,” directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, occurs before the event that turned the voyage to the moon into an all-out effort to bring the astronauts home alive. Having started their voyage to the moon, the Apollo 13 crew put on a television broadcast that was not picked up by any of the major networks.

The broadcast consisted of stilted dialogue, lame jokes and various objects spinning in microgravity. The Apollo astronauts were great explorers and test pilots but their skills as reality TV stars left a little to be desired. 

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Sadly, nine months after Apollo 11, watched on live TV by half a billion people, flights to the moon had become boring. Nobody wanted their soap operas or game shows interrupted to watch another pair of heroes bouncing about the lunar surface.

Another theme that ran through the movie was the shadow of growing political and public opposition to the Apollo program. Even on the night of the first moon walk, some of the astronauts who would later fly on Apollo 13 had to reassure themselves the program would not be cut before their flight was scheduled to take place. Later, Lovell confronts a fictional politician played by the filmmaker Roger Corman. The politician is clearly dubious about continuing the Apollo program. All Lovell could do was to argue that it would have been a sad thing if the Europeans had given up exploring the Americas after Columbus.

The goal of Apollo, as articulated by President Kennedy, had already been accomplished by the time of Apollo 13. We had sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to the Earth. We had shown the Soviets which was the superior political and economic system. Subsequent Apollo missions seemed to be expensive victory laps.

Soon after the broadcast that no one watched, that explosion happened in Apollo 13’s service module and Lovell announced, “Houston, we have a problem.” A flight to the moon suddenly became exciting again. The rest of Apollo 13’s story was an epic adventure in which the flight controllers and the astronauts combined forces for the mission’s new objective, to get the men home and alive.

One should note that earlier research on backup trajectories done by Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician whose life was made famous in another movie, “Hidden Figures,” proved crucial for the effort to get the astronauts home. The fact did not make it into the Ron Howard movie.

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In any case, the world was kept on the edge of its collective seats by the sudden twist in the reality show that was the Apollo program. Men landing on the moon was old hat. Men in peril of dying while flying to and from the moon was television ratings gold. That the three men of Apollo 13 made it back to Earth alive was the perfect ending to a thrilling story.

Some evidence exists the film “Apollo 13” sparked a renewed interest in flights to the moon. A person born just after the flight of Apollo 17 would be in his or her early 20s when the movie bowed in 1995. The movie showed to a new generation that America once dared to do great things.

As human beings prepare to return to the moon by 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis project. Apollo 13, both the real mission and the movie, provides some insights. Support for the return to the moon should not depend on reality show gimmicks, even though we have in the Oval Office a master of that genre.

The goal of Artemis, unlike Apollo, is somewhat open ended, more like the International Space Station than a single-event moon landing. Artemis will not only return the “first woman and the next man” to the moon but establish a “lunar base camp” at the moon’s south pole. Just as the ISS is no longer controversial, the moon base should be impervious to shifting political fancies. People living and working on the moon will be judged by the benefits they produce, scientific, commercial and political, as it should be.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.