What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions

Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies – Volume 98: “Apollo 13”

  • Today’s Movie: Apollo 13
  • Year of Release: 1995
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon
  • Director: Ron Howard

This movie is not on my list of essential films.

NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Second Luso World Cinema Blog-a-thon. This is an event celebrating descendants of the Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) world and their films. Last year, this event won an award from the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) for Best Blog Event!

Map of the Lusophone world.

Naturally, my participation in this year’s event likely precludes any chance of repeating such accolades 🙂 . Despite that I’d like to thank co-hosts Spellbound By Movies and Crítica Retrô for allowing to contribute to this tremendous event!

You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:

The Story:

Apollo 13 starts with astronaut Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) watching the first moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. A former naval aviator, Lovell traded in aircraft carriers for rockets. In December 1968, Lovell was the command module pilot of Apollo 8, which was the first mission to fly to and orbit the moon. Now, he’s hosting a watch party with a house full of guests watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. This is when he tells his wife Marilyn (played by Kathleen Quinlan) that he intends to get back to the Moon and set foot on it.

The real Ken Mattingly, Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise.

Three months later, Director of Apollo Flight Operations Donald “Deke” Slayton (played by Chris Ellis) tells Lovell that because of some crew issues, the order of flights is being changed; Lovell’s crew will now fly Apollo 13 rather than 14. As a result, Flight Commander Lovell begins updated mission training with his crew; Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise) and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton).

However, just a few days before before the launch of Apollo 13, Mattingly is exposed to the German Measles (Rubella). As a result, the flight surgeon grounds Mattingly, placing his replacement Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon) on Lovell’s crew. At first, Lovell resists this change, but changes his mind when Slayton threatens to change the flight order again, which would put his crew on a later mission.

April 11, 1970: Apollo 13 is launched after Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) gives the “Go” signal. The problem is that Apollo 13 is the third mission intended to land on the moon. Since that was the goal, and it has been achieved and repeated already, the novelty has worn off. On the third day of the mission, the crew does a live broadcast from space, but the three major networks at the time decline to carry it. The “routine” nature of the spaceflight made them deem it not “newsworthy.”

Moments after the “live shot” from space, the Apollo 13 mission became anything but “routine.” During a standard maintenance procedure involving the liquid oxygen tanks, an explosion in one of those tanks changes everything.

“Houston, we have a problem…”

Not only does this leave the spacecraft tumbling out of control, but it is losing the oxygen needed to keep the crew alive, since the other of the two tanks is also leaking. Since the leaking oxygen tank is connected to the fuel cells, an attempt is made to control the leak by shutting down two of them. Not only does this plan fail, it now means a landing on the moon is now impossible.

The Lunar Module and the Command/Service Module

At this point, the focus of the mission becomes one of survival. Lovell and Haise begin powering up the Lunar Module Aquarius to use as a “lifeboat” while Swigert shuts down the Command/Service Module Odyssey in order to conserve the remaining battery power the crew has at their disposal. Meanwhile, back at Mission Control in Houston, Flight Director Gene Kranz orders his team to devise a plan to bring the astronauts home safely; as part of this directive, grounded astronaut Mattingly begins inventing a procedure to restart Odyssey for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

This process literally had to be devised “from the ground up” because there was never a thought of powering down Odyssey in-flight, let alone powering it back up. After all, how often do you shut off the engine of your car on the freeway…only to re-start it? Not to mention, they also had to work around Apollo 13’s severe power and time constraints.

Kranz: “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”

Since the explosion occurred on the outbound leg of the mission, The idea of a “direct abort” (essentially a mid-space “U-turn”) is rejected as Mission Control is not confident the remaining capacity of the fuel cells could generate the amount of power needed for such a maneuver. Instead, the plan is to continue to the Moon and use it’s gravity to “slingshot” the craft back to Earth.

In any event, once the immediate crisis is under control, there’s a daunting set of problems which must be addressed to bring the three astronauts back to Earth alive.

First of all, Lunar Module Aquarius was designed to support two men for two days on the Moon. Now, it has to support all three astronauts for the four-day return trip to Earth.

Second, the Command/Service Module Odyssey’s electricity came from fuel cells that produced water as a by-product. However, the Lunar Module Aquarius relied on silver-zinc batteries which did not. This meant shutting down the fuel cells and relying on the batteries drastically reduced the available electrical power. But worse yet, it also cut the water supply needed for equipment cooling and drinking down to critical levels.

Even though Swigert was able to fill some bags with water from the Command Module’s supply, Haise calculated they would run out of water for cooling the electronics about five hours before re-entry. Even to make it that far, the ration for drinking was only 6.8 fluid ounces (0.2 liters) per person per day. This was based on the idea that when Apollo 11’s Lunar Module was jettisoned, it’s systems remained operational for seven to eight hours with no cooling water.

On top of that, with limited electrical power, the temperature inside the darkened spacecraft plummeted to 38 °F (3 °C ). That would be like living in your refrigerator for four days. To combat the near freezing temperatures, Lovell considered having the crew put on their spacesuits, but decided this might have the opposite effect. If they got too hot in the suits, they would sweat and become even more dehydrated. Not only would that have exacerbated the water-rationing situation, but Haise was showing signs of developing a kidney/urinary tract infection.

You can keep Bacon in the freezer for up to six months, but only about four days in space.

Instead, Lovell and Haise wore their boots made for walking on the Moon. Swigert did not have such gear since as the Command Module pilot, he would not have gone to the Moon’s surface. He donned an extra pair of coveralls, but he got his feet wet while filling the water bags. In other words, all three astronauts were now subject to feeling the effects of hypothermia.

At this point, they are traveling in such a diminished power state that can’t even discharge their bodily waste into space for fear it will alter their trajectory back to Earth; they had to store it in bags. The near-freezing temperatures are causing the water vapor in their breath to condense on the walls; the moisture increasing the risk of a short-circuit in the electronics…which drives up the chances of an on-board fire.

The moon as seen from Apollo 13

It doesn’t take long for the brutal conditions to take their toll. As Swigert and Haise watch the Moon pass beneath them, Lovell laments his lost chance of walking on it. But then tensions rise as Swigert suspects Mission Control is withholding information from them; he thinks Houston knows they can’t get back to Earth. In return, Haise angrily blames Swigert’s inexperience for the accident. This snaps Lovell out of his lament and back into the role of Flight Commander. He quickly silences the argument and returns their attention to the business of getting home.

If all the things already mentioned weren’t bad enough, there’s another life-threatening problem looming. While the Lunar Module carried enough oxygen, there was still the problem of removing exhaled carbon dioxide from the spacecraft. This was done with filtration canisters filled with lithium hydroxide pellets which absorbs the carbon dioxide. The problem is that the Lunar Module’s supply of filtration canisters was only intended to support two astronauts for 45 hours on the Moon, not three astronauts for four days.

The Command Module had an additional supply of filtration canisters, but they were the wrong shape and size to work in the Lunar Module’s scrubbing equipment. Led by Mattingly, a team of engineers on the ground devise a way to retrofit Command Module canisters to fit in the Lunar Module using only materials available to the astronauts. But what was literally “duct tape engineering” worked; carbon dioxide levels dropped immediately.

Then there’s the matter of actually navigating the ship back to Earth. Since the automated guidance systems have all been powered down, the crew must make several difficult but vital course corrections by manually igniting the Lunar Module’s engine. Of course, every one of these burns runs the risk of causing another malfunction, and they have no margin for error.

Meanwhile, Mattingly has gone back to finding a way to restore power to the Command Module without over-loading the circuits. Once the team on the ground figures out the correct sequence for restoring power, the procedure is transmitted to Swigert. Once power was restored to the Command Module Odyssey, the crew jettisons the damaged service module. This is the first time they can see how badly damaged it was by the explosion.

As they get closer to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the time comes to jettison the Lunar Module Aquarius. Now the issue becomes as they release Aquarius and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, no one is sure that Odyssey’s heat shield is intact. If it is not, the crew will be incinerated.

That fact heightens the tension during the “black-out period” where communication between Mission Control and the Command Module is impossible because the heat generated during re-entry ionizes the air around the spacecraft which disrupts all radio traffic.

Regular readers of this series know that I religiously avoid “spoilers” wherever possible. Well, with a film based on such a historic event, everybody can easily deduce the ending. Even if they can’t, the end of this film contain a top-flight “spoiler;” a cameo by the real Captain Jim Lovell, United States Navy.

Lovell appears as Leland E. Kirkemo, the captain of the USS Iwo Jima which was the ship to recover the Apollo 13 crew from South Pacific after their successful splashdown. Lovell is seen as Captain Kirkemo shaking hands with Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell.

Apollo 13 ends with the three astronauts getting a hero’s welcome aboard the USS Iwo Jima while a voice-over from the real Jim Lovell describes the subsequent investigation into the explosion, traces the rest of the careers of Haise, Swigert, Mattingly, and Kranz, and wonders if and when mankind will return to the Moon.

Apollo 13 Command Module being recovered by the USS Iwo Jima.

The Hidden Sports Analogy:

Before I get into today’s hidden sports analogy, there needs to be a bit of “full disclosure.” As a kid, I was a huge “space nerd.” That’s because my father was a missileman in the U.S. Air Force, then he transferred to Space Systems at Vandenberg AFB, California. While all the big launches happened at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral) Florida, a huge amount of the the research and testing happened at Vandenberg.

I’m also of the right age that all of the Apollo flights happened in my lifetime…more importantly in my childhood. You can use the term “rock star” all you want to describe a monstrously huge celebrity today, but in the late 60s and early 70s, the Apollo astronauts would have every rock star on Earth lining up to meet them. Neil Armstrong being the first man to walk on the Moon gave him a distinction even bigger than the big-time explorers like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus (or Vasco de Gama since this event is a celebration of all things Portuguese).

But it was Jim Lovell and Apollo 13 who drove home the reminder that nothing about exploring…be it the Silk Road, the “New World,” or spaceflight…is ever routine. Lovell and his crew were the Shackleton Expedition of their day.

If you boil that all down to blogger gravy, it means since the first time I ever participated in a movie blog-a-thon, I’ve been waiting for a chance to do Apollo 13. But it wasn’t just the opportunity presented by this Lusophone blog-a-thon which made this possible. Here’s an admitted “space nerd” with a chance to write about a space movie which qualified for this blog-a-thon’s theme.

But it still needed the hidden sports analogy.

Unfortunately, that was provided by Dubsism’s #1 most important sports story of 2020. Say what you will about the COVID-19 virus; there’s no denying it had the same effect on the sports world as did the oxygen tanks on Apollo 13.

It changed everything.

The sports world hadn’t seen such a prolonged disruption since the Second World War, and even then there wasn’t a complete shutdown. Everything went on pause after the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, but that was only for a week or so. Even then, and just like with the Command Module on Apollo 13, the problem with a temporary shutdown is that eventually you have to figure out how to turn it back on again.

As you’ve just read, re-starting the Command Module was all about electricity; nobody had ever tried to re-power a system based on hydrogen fuel cells from batteries while in-flight. After 9/11, the problem was security. After all, a stadium packed with fans makes an ideal target for a terrorist.

Firing the sports world back-up in the midst of a pandemic had to borrow a bit from both. Nobody had ever done this before, and a major component of any security protocol is dealing with fears, both real and imagined. The uncertainty of forging into unknown territory is the engine that drives fear, and a major component of success is the conquering of fear. Successfully managing those two is the ultimate balancing act.

The real Gene Kranz.

Everybody remembers Ed Harris’ great line in Apollo 13 about “failure is not an option.” But to me there’s two lines that define Flight Director Gene Kranz’ approach to problem-solving.

In other words, the genius of Gene Kranz was his mastery of that balancing act.

I don’t care about what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.

Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.

~Ed Harris as Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz

There’s a shop-worn cliché about “thinking outside the box,” but it applies in this case when it comes to how sports leagues managed their re-starts. Regular readers of Dubsism know I’ve been historically a harsh critic of National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell. For years, I’ve mocked him as a bumbling Soviet-era Kommissar for his various acts of dim-bulbery.

You could spend days reading my rants about him. He’s even got his own installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies. But while I may be a harsh critic, I also need to give credit where credit is due. Somehow Kommissar Goodell channeled his inner “Gene Kranz” and got this one right.

When the NFL started it’s 2020 season in September, there were pin-heads like ESPN’s Max Kellerman who said there was a “zero-percent chance” the league would finish it’s season. Well, as I’m writing this, I’m watching the second-round of the NFL Play-offs, which means Kellerman and the rest of the “nay-sayers” get to eat their own “bullshit sandwich.”

First Take: The last time it was possible to take Max Kellerman seriously.

I never understood the so-called “journalists” like Kellerman who make their living from sports actively cheering for the re-start of sports to fail. Nobody wanted the Apollo 13 crew to die in space; even the “Cold War” adversary Soviet Union sent ships to the South Pacific to help recover the astronauts in case they landed off-target.

The other thing I couldn’t figure out was how could a group of people so close to the sports world not see the main analogy between Apollo 13 and sports? Lives were riding on the successful re-start of both.

It’s easy to see the primary faces of the sports world and not be terribly concerned about their welfare in the face of a shut-down. Millionaire players and billionaire owners all have no reason not to have enough fat stored up for winter. But people close to the sports world should know that for each of those easily-visible “big money” faces, there are scores of little ones whose livelihoods depend on sport-related incomes.

Just look at one football team. Just look at the team’s headquarters facility. You will see hundreds of people who work there who you will never see on a playing field. But when the game isn’t played, the team doesn’t generate revenue. That means the team doesn’t make payroll, which results in some very hard times for scores of working-class families.

Now, multiply that by 31 other football teams. Then multiply that by all the other major-league sports. Then multiply that by all the minor-league sports franchises across all sports. Once you start “working the problem,” it doesn’t take long to see that sports are responsible for putting roofs over the heads of, and food in the stomachs of hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s why Goodell knew the NFL had to take the lead in turning that which far too many said was “impossible” into reality. Last summer, Major League Baseball broke the mold for “breaking the rules.” The NFL built on that foundation. Nobody had ever played an NFL game on a Wednesday afternoon. But there was no rule which said it couldn’t be done. It was that level of flexibility that allowed the NFL to complete it’s regular season in full. There’s a reason why both the National Basketball Association and the the National Hockey League are using the model established by the NFL.

That’s why the re-start was vital; lives depended on it. Goodell didn’t do this for his own well-being; the guy made $40 million in 2019. He’s not worried about where his next meal is coming from. But that may not be the case for the people who answer the phones, clean the facilities, and generally keep the lights on through their administrative/support services.

And that’s why failure wasn’t an option.

The Moral of the Story:

“Impossible” is a term often misused by those who underestimate will and disregard determination.

Jim Lovell reading about his own survival.

Nobody believes me, but during this six-day odyssey we had no idea what an impression Apollo 13 made on the people of Earth. We never dreamed a billion people were following us on television and radio, and reading about us in banner headlines of every newspaper published. We still missed the point on board the carrier Iwo Jima, which picked us up, because the sailors had been as remote from the media as we were. Only when we reached Honolulu did we comprehend our impact: there we found President Nixon and [NASA Administrator] Dr. Paine to meet us, along with my wife Marilyn, Fred’s wife Mary (who being pregnant, also had a doctor along just in case), and bachelor Jack’s parents.

~ Jim Lovell

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About J-Dub

What your view of sports would be if you had too many concussions

One comment on “Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies – Volume 98: “Apollo 13”

  1. Le
    January 17, 2021

    What a great post! I remember watching Apollo 11 on chemistry class in high school, but either th teacher didn’t explain everything as well as you did or I forgot his explanation with time. The analogy to sports world and its current challenges is a very well-thought one. I’m glad our blogathon has given you the opportunity to write about this film and about space.
    Thanks for taking part in our event!

    Liked by 1 person

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