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1:48:13 Four More Amps

NASA's Finest Hour

By Taara Ness-Cochinwala

[1] With barely enough power to run a coffee pot for nine hours, Mission Control is charged with the task of finding sufficient amps to power the Odyssey back up for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This scene is the culmination of a multitude of obstacles met and overcome by the Apollo 13 crew both in space and at home. It demonstrates the limits to which the astronauts have been pushed and the determination of those at Mission Control to bring these men home, ultimately making this “NASA’s finest hour.”

[2] The scene reveals the intense limits to which the astronauts have been driven, first, through Jim Lovell’s desperate request for the power-up procedure. We rarely see this veteran astronaut and charming family man waiver or lose his cool, even when in an emergency situation. So when we do see him reach a point of desperation, we can appreciate the intense experience this individual has endured, the physical and mental stress that has been triggered. Lovell states, “Houston . . . We . . . We just can't throw this together at the last minute. So, here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna get the procedure up to us, whatever it is. And we're gonna go over it step by step so there's no foul-ups. I don't have to tell you we're all a little tired up here. The world's getting awfully big in the window.”

[3] Other elements of the scene that reveal the physical and mental boundaries reached are Fred Haise’s deteriorating physical state and Jack Swigert’s declining mental state. With the heat off in order to conserve power in the freezing vacuum of space, Haise is feverish and shivering uncontrollably, falling more ill by the second. When Swigert is trying to attempt the power-up procedure, we witness his abilities failing as well. He states, “Stand by, Ken . . . Ken, I'm a . . . Well, I'm having trouble reading my own writing. I guess, I'm a little more tired than I thought.”

[4] Evidently, the astronauts have all reached a point of desperation, and it is Mission Control’s job to get these men home. This is the point in the scene at which we are shown a stunning example of Mission Control’s determination and teamwork to ensure not a single man is lost. The trained-to-perfection Ken Mattingly had been bumped from the mission for measles (that never transpired) and replaced by the less-than-perfect rookie Swigert. Yet Mattingly displays incredible teamwork as he first helps to create an entirely new power-up plan and then coaxes his replacement through each step, since his mental capabilities are failing. Mattingly and John Aaron exhibit incredible ingenuity as they work tirelessly in and alongside the simulator, trying out various power-up combinations to stay under a certain amp level. The vigorous work ethic, team work, and resourcefulness it took to come up with a solution to the power problem in this scene helps to pinpoint this mission, the “successful failure,” as NASA’s finest hour.

[5] What about the “reel” versus the “real”? What, if anything, does the film alter from the historical account? In this scene director Ron Howard alters almost nothing from his source, Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon. A key goal when creating this film was to recreate the entire mission as technically accurate as possible. The film crew did not use one piece of footage from NASA but had a NASA technical consultant on hand to ensure every piece they remade was as accurate as possible. In this scene, they accomplished this goal. The ground team did find the remaining amps by reversing the power flow in the umbilical cord from the back-up LEM batteries to the Odyssey. In the actual mission, they also decided to go with a power-up without telemetry. Aside from switching it on for few minutes to check for inaccuracies, Apollo 13 was without guidance both in real life and the film. As Lovell described this feat in his book, it was “a bit like trying to paint a portrait in a dark room” (287). Furthermore, the individuals working on the problem were the same that worked on it in the historical account according to Lovell. His book states, “The task of rationing Odyssey’s electricity had, of course, fallen to John Aaron,” whom we see in the film, and “Ken Mattingly, whose feared case of measles had still not surfaced, was sealed up in the command module simulator. Mattingly would run through the procedure he had been handed and then radio back to room 210 that yes, the new method . . . was a good one, or that no, they would have to try again” (286-87). Evidently, in this scene the “reel” aligns quite closely with the “real.”

[6]While the film gets it right with these two individuals, it leaves out others who were also involved in the process. Lovell states, “But Aaron’s work was only half of what was going on in room 210. Just as important as determining how much juice each switch in the command module would draw when it was turned on was determining the order in which those switches would be flipped. . . . That job fell to Arnie Aldrich”(286-87). Aldrich, “one of the Space Center’s leading command module engineers,” is absent in this scene despite his significant involvement in the process. Another aspect of this scene that differs from the reality is the work that each individual is doing (287). While the film makes it seem that Ken Mattingly essentially solves the problem on his own, in reality, he is the last in line. After Aaron worked out a power budget for each system, he would pass it on to Aldrich who would determine a “switch-throwing sequence that stayed within those limits. Aldrich, in turn, would forward this plan to the INCO or EECOM or GNC who oversaw that part of the spacecraft” (287). They would then pass the procedure on to Kranz who would O.K. it and only then, would Mattingly receive it to try it out in the simulator. So, while this scene does align the "reel" quite closely with the "real," there are still omissions likely made to shorten and dramatize the plot, making this film unable to be completely used objectively as history.

[7] Overall, this scene dramatizes the physical and mental duress the astronauts experienced. Also highly evident in this scene is the ensuing response by Mission Control, Apollo 13’s ground crew, to innovatively work together as they never had before and create a moment of incredible human connection and genius, one I have made a strong case contends for NASA’s finest hour.