Engineering in Culture: Apollo 13 (1995)

Blog » Engineering in Culture: Apollo 13 (1995)

Posted on 28 Apr 2013 18:26

Created by Nelsyda PerezNelsyda Perez

Leading Cast: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlin
Director: Ron Howard
Writer(s): William Broyles Jr, Al Reinert
Genre: Drama, History

In mainstream media, it is hard to find a movie that emphasizes the importance of an engineer’s work. One film that not only brings in the much needed emphasis while also making the engineers the protagonists of the film is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, based on a the book Lost Moon written by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.

Apollo 13 stars Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. After the successful landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and the other members of his crew, NASA planned another trip to the moon, just as Europeans made repeated trips to America after discovery. The main crew was Jim Lovell as the Commander, Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) as the Command Module Pilot and Fred Haise as the Lunar Module Pilot. Jack Swigert replaced Mattingly as the Command Module Pilot due to the possibility of Mattingly contracting the measles. On the day of the launching of the Apollo 13, the astronauts were ready to reach their destination on the moon. Little did they know that an oxygen tank failure would set their original plans aside and force Lovell, Haise, Swigert, Mattingly all the engineers back at NASA to improvise and use their knowledge as engineers to save the three astronauts.

The first 30 minutes of this film focuses on eliminating the stereotypical "nerd image" of engineers. The writing and direction still gives a sense that the engineer is a perfection by way of the preparation for the Apollo 13 mission that we see going on; however most of the scenes in the first 30 minutes show Lovell establishing a relationship with his wife Marilyn, played by Kathleen Quinlin, and the rest of his friends and family. He is barely acting "nerd-like" during these scenes. Instead, Lovell acts like a neighbor you might have known at some point, or a neighbor you do know. One would have never guessed that he was an astronaut at NASA. Seeing Marilyn worry about her husband reminds you that Lovell, Haise and Swigert are not just nerds in space. They are real men with real families.

After those first 30 minutes, the Apollo 13 is finally launched and here is where we get the full-blown engineering aspect of this film. Lovell, Haise and Swigert constantly communicate their problems to Mission Control back at NASA. Mattingly and Mission Control, under the command of Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), are in charge of coming up with solutions to specific engineering problems using the flight simulator, whatever the crew on the Apollo 13 have access to, and nothing else. In this film, the engineers are the heroes. Their collaboration in communication, building and planning eventually helped save lives. From making a square filter fit a circular hole in order to prevent carbon dioxide from spilling into the ship, to coming up with an innovation in providing much needed energy to the ship, the engineers worked through every step in order to save Lovell, Haise and Swigert. The crew on the Apollo 13 also offers their own solutions to problems on the ship showing off how engineers, even in dire circumstances, provide for the team.

Apollo 13 is a film that all engineers must see. Because this film is made for a mainstream audience, there is very little confusion in terms of what is wrong with the ship and what is going on in general. The suspense and drama in this film allows the audience to feel for the protagonists of this story. The resolutions created by the engineering solutions become miraculous to the mainstream audience. To top it all off, we know, in the back of our heads, that the actors and scenes represent real life events that occurred in the past. As an engineering film, Apollo 13 presents engineers as normal people and as heroes in our everyday world.

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