How A Hollywood Movie Helped To Save The Apollo 13 Crew

Art imitates life, and then life imitates art — or at least, that's the case with this surprising tale of the Hollywood movie that apparently saved the Apollo 13 space crew. This particular movie played a critical role in the formation of an important rescue protocol, reports Time. According to the Space website, the Apollo 13 mission was supposed to be the third time ever that astronauts would walk on the moon. But after just 56 hours in space, the unthinkable happened, leaving the astronauts in a panic.

Commanding the ship was James Lovell, who at that time had already been in space longer than anyone else alive (via Space). He'd been to space three times, and spent more than 500 hours aboard different spacecraft. However, the other two astronauts, command module pilot John Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise, had not been to outer space before. After taking off on April 11, 1970,  Apollo 13 had traveled 200,000 miles away from Earth by April 13, 1970, the fateful day of the incident that nearly killed the crew. 

'Houston, we've had a problem'

Deep in space, one of the hydrogen tanks on Apollo 13 was low on pressure, and sent it out a warning signal to mission control. Universe Today reports that there was suddenly a huge explosion. Apollo 13 crew members were shaken, and originally thought they had been hit by an asteroid. This led Swigert to utter a now-famous line: "Houston, we've had a problem" (via Space).

Per NASA, the astronauts were now facing a serious problem: their first oxygen tank had exploded, and that tank was now empty. The second was visibly leaking oxygen into outer space very quickly. This issue also affected the power in the spacecraft; two out of three fuel cells were suddenly depleted. 

The three astronauts closed the door between the lunar module and the command module in order to conserve oxygen. But after about an hour, they had no choice but to leave the lunar module and instead, cram into a tiny lunar module originally designed to accommodate only two people. 

What movie was the inspiration for the fix?

Universe Today reports that quite a few mission control members had seen the potential solution to Apollo 13's problem in a movie titled "Marooned." As part of "NASA Night Out," as the mission control crew called their low-cost outing, a few of them had gone to enjoy the movie on January 13, 1970. Per IMDb, the 1969 movie "Marooned" was directed by John Sturges, and starred Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, James Franciscus, David Janssen, Richard Crenna, and Nancy Kovack. Crenna, Hackman, and Franciscus played three American astronauts who become stranded deep in outer space. The movie won an Oscar for best special effects in 1970. It is based on a 1964 novel of the same title by Martin Caiden, who also wrote "Cyborg," the source novel for "The Six Million Dollar Man."

Per Universe Today, "Marooned" actually played a huge role in Apollo 13's real-life emergency. "The correlation between 'Marooned' and actual events threatening Apollo 13 is really uncanny. People may not agree, but in my mind this movie was actually a catalyst to the rescue of Apollo 13," said NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.

Depleted batteries

Among the movie-goers was Art Campos, a longtime NASA electrical engineer and mentor to other employees (per Universe Today). The movie left him wondering: What if an emergency happened to the Apollo 13 astronauts? "In the movie, charging the batteries was the instruction to fix the problem," said Woodfill, "and Art said he wondered, 'What if we faced such dire problems?' and other what-ifs."

Campos was awakened just hours later to discover that Apollo 13 had an emergency eerily similar to the one he had just been thinking about (via Universe Today). The Apollo 13 crew needed enough power to bring their spacecraft back to Earth. As he to drove the mission evaluation room at the Manned Spacecraft Center, Campos thought about "Marooned." 

Sure enough, it inspired Campos to think of just the solution. As Woodfill recalled, Campos remembered something he had devised earlier for the Apollo missions. It was a procedure for recharging spent emergency batters with a sort of jumper cable between the capsule and the lunar lander module's huge batteries, which would contain enough power.

Cramped conditions

The solution in the "Marooned" movie was that empty emergency batteries needed to be charged (via Universe Today). Campos wondered if emergency power could possibly be created through a jumper charge between the two vehicles, repowering the massive lunar batteries in Apollo 13.

Meanwhile, in outer space, the Apollo 13 astronauts were crammed in the lunar module, where they were freezing cold, terrified, and dehydrated, drinking only six ounces of liquid each day (via NASA). They found it was nearly impossible to get any sleep in a 38-degree spacecraft with condensation covering every surface. They ate hot dogs and sipped fruit juice while they waited for answers from Earth. Apollo 13 circled the dark side of the moon, and made it safely around.

Back on Earth, mission control spent three frantic days rewriting procedures to bring the command module back to power, in the hopes that the astronauts could make it safely back to Earth. Per Universe Today, Campos found a tiny wire running between the two modules that seemed promising and might serve as the makeshift jumper cable, so he and other electrical engineers tried the recharging procedure in a simulator. It didn't work; the simulator rejected their attempts. But with no other choice left, they decided that the Apollo 13 crew would have to perform the battery recharge in space, and hope that it worked.

'Marooned' was the inspiration for the repair

Taking just a few days to complete procedures that usually require months of work, the flight controllers had finally figured out how to bring power back to the command module (via NASA). Mission control worried that the trickle charge could flow the wrong way, but miraculously, it worked (via Universe Today). Without the battery charge, reentry into Earth's orbit could have proved fatal for the Apollo 13 crew. The crew splashed down successfully on April 17.

In another example of art imitating life yet again, a movie was made about the incredible mission and rescue efforts, titled "Apollo 13" (via IMDb). The movie was released in 1995, 25 years after the original mission, and starred Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon as the trio of astronauts.

Afterward, people marveled at just how many similarities there were between "Marooned" and the real-life events of Apollo 13 (via Universe Today). Both crews initially thought they'd been hit by a meteor, the press coverage was similar, they were both threatened by hurricanes upon reentry, and both had commanders named Jim. Jerry Woodfill said (per Universe Today), "I really think 'Marooned' was the catalyst for Art remembering this wire." The Apollo 13 crew and mission control members will never forget the inspiration that "Marooned" delivered to them in one of their most dangerous missions ever.