By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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Quick! Without looking it up, name the crew of the second team of astronauts to visit the surface of the moon.
History is never kind to second place, and if it weren’t for the catastrophic accident that derailed his moon mission, Jim Lovell would be just a footnote in the history of space exploration. After all, his was the third trip to the moon, and even though it had been less than a year since Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind, the world was already bored with space.
Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 begins as the story of a man on the verge of losing his dream. Lovell (Tom Hanks) is scheduled to fly on Apollo 14–if Congress doesn’t cut the funding first. The race to the moon is over. The Americans have beaten the Soviets. Why keep spending? When he’s offered the chance to command Apollo 13 instead, Lovell grabs it. He is going to the moon, and though he won’t be the first, he’ll still stand on a rock 238,000 miles from Earth, something practically unthinkable two decades earlier.
Fate is cruel to Jim Lovell. It refuses to allow him even that glory. Four days into the flight, 200,000 miles from Earth, an electrical glitch triggers an explosion that costs Lovell’s crew most of their oxygen and most of their power. He will never walk on the moon, and if everything doesn’t go just right from here on out, he won’t live to return to his wife and kids, either.
Suddenly, the largely ignored crew of Apollo 13 is the center of attention. The world is watching, but this time no one expects things to end in triumph. Lovell and his crew have to work with the scientists in Houston to jerry-rig their wounded spacecraft so it can bring them safely home.
Apollo 13 succeeds on two fronts–as a piece of recounted history, sure, but more importantly as a human drama. The all-business atmosphere at Mission Control (featuring excellent work by Ed Harris) is balanced by Kathleen Quinlan’s pitch-perfect turn as Lovell’s wife. Hanks is solid as ever, and his interplay with trapped colleagues Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton feels real, not amped up for the big screen.
It’s been over sixty years since the Russians launched Sputnik into space, and almost 50 since Armstrong trod the lunar dust. In that time, we’ve pulled back from the promise of the Kennedy era (fulfilled, ironically, by JFK’s former adversary, Richard Nixon). The US government has allowed its budget for space exploration to dwindle. Perhaps the recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy–a preparation, we are told, for a trip to Mars–will inspire new generations to reach out into space. Apollo 13 should remind us that no space flight is routine. We mustn’t lose our capacity to marvel at our achievements, or stop trying for more.