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“Houston, we have a problem.” The iconic five-word phrase spoken by Tom Hanks, portraying astronaut Jim Lovell, in the 1995 blockbuster Apollo 13 instantly became one of the most memorable movie quotes of all time. However, the line was one instance where director Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning film took some creative license. Astronaut Jack Swigert, played on the big screen by Kevin Bacon, was actually the one who first sent the famous distress call to Mission Control from the shuttle, actually saying, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Other than that slight change of phrase, Apollo 13 was a very real depiction of the perilous outer space journey of three astronauts: Lovell, Swigert and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton).
Intended to be NASA’s third moon-landing mission, Apollo 13 launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970. Two days later — and approximately 205,000 miles from Earth — the men reported hearing a loud bang. That problem Swigert had famously mentioned ended up being an oxygen tank explosion that severely damaged the vessel, rendering a lunar landing impossible.
“It really was not until I looked out the window and saw the oxygen escaping from the rear end of my spacecraft that I knew that we were in serious trouble,” Lovell recalled at Kennedy Space Center gala commemorating the mission’s 45th anniversary in April 2015.
Across the nation, Americans were glued to their television sets awaiting news of what happened to the trio that was forced to orbit the moon while scrambling to find a way to back to their families. After spending 142 hours and 54 minutes in space, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17, landing in the south Pacific Ocean, about four miles from the recovery ship, USS Iwo Jima.
The following day, President Richard Nixon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the men, as well as Apollo 13’s Mission Operations Team for their heroic efforts during what has been called “NASA’s finest hour.” Here are the real men behind the famed space mission and hit film:
Commander James “Jim” Lovell Jr. (Tom Hanks)
With three missions and 572 spaceflight hours of experience to his credit, Lovell, who was played by Hanks in the 1995 film, was the world’s most traveled astronaut for a time. A former test pilot, the Cleveland, Ohio native participated in several high-profile NASA missions, including flights on Gemini 7, Gemini 12 and Apollo 8, which was the first mission to circle the moon.
Before joining NASA, Lovell attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, from 1948 to 1952. Upon graduation, he married his high school sweetheart Marilyn Lovell (née Gerlach), whom actor Kathleen Quinlan portrayed in Apollo 13. The couple has four children: Barbara, James, Susan and Jeffrey.
Lovell’s role as Apollo 13 commander is one he’s often reflected on over the years. “The flight was a failure in its initial mission,” he said in 2015. “However, it was a tremendous success in the ability of people to get together, like the mission control team working with what they had and working with the flight crew to turn what was almost a certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.”
On March 1, 1973, Lovell retired from NASA and as a U.S. Navy captain. After working in various corporate jobs, including executive roles in a towing company and telecommunications business, he retired from the private sector in 1991. In collaboration with journalist Jeffrey Kluge, Lovell co-wrote the 1994 book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which served as the basis for Howard’s big-screen adaptation the following year. Lovell even made a cameo in the film as captain of the USS Iwo Jima rescue ship.
Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, Jr. (Bill Paxton)
Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, Haise, played by Paxton, completed flight training with the U.S. Navy in 1954 and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot until 1956. Beginning his NASA career in 1959 at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio (now the Glenn Research Center), the University of Oklahoma graduate acted as a research pilot until he was selected for astronaut training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in 1966.
The 35-year-old Haise had been a backup lunar module pilot on Apollo 8 and 11, but his earlier experience proved most useful in calmly helping the Apollo 13 crew survive the aborted lunar-landing mission. “As a military pilot and a test pilot, handling unusual situations and aircraft malfunctions was part of the business,” he explained in a 2014 Q&A with NASA. “My biggest emotion on Apollo 13 after the oxygen tank explosion was disappointment that we had lost the landing. Ron Howard, director for the movie Apollo 13, commented that it never sounded like we had a problem after listening to all the air-to-ground transmissions.”
He was later assigned to command the Apollo 19 moon mission that NASA ultimately canceled in 1972 following a series of budget cuts. Along with fellow astronaut Gordon Fullerton, Haise piloted the space shuttle Enterprise for three of its test flights in 1977. After leaving NASA in 1979, the father of four served as president of Grumman Technical Services Inc. as part of the Shuttle Processing Contract Team throughout the 1980s and ’90s until his eventual retirement.
Command Module Pilot John “Jack” Swigert Jr. (Kevin Bacon)
Swigert was a last-minute addition to the Apollo 13 crew, replacing Ken Mattingly, who had been exposed to German measles just 48 hours before the 1970 launch. The Denver, Colorado native served in the United States Air Force from 1953 to 1956 and was assigned as a fighter pilot in Japan and Korea upon his graduation from the Pilot Training Program and Gunnery School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Following his tour of active duty, Swigert served as a jet fighter pilot in both the Massachusetts Air National Guard from 1957 to 1960 and the Connecticut Air National Guard from 1960 to 1965. In April 1966, Swigert and Haise were among the 19 astronauts selected by NASA for training, and two years later, he became a member of Apollo 7’s astronaut support crew. The Apollo 13 mission was the then-38-year-old mechanical and aerospace engineer’s first space flight.
After taking a leave of absence in April 1973 to become the U.S. House of Representatives’ Executive Director of the Committee on Science and Technology, Swigert eventually resigned from both NASA and the congressional committee in August 1977 to officially enter politics. The Republican was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado’s 6th district in 1982. Before he could be sworn in, however, Swigert died of bone cancer on December 27, 1982, at 51 years old.
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