American Frontier Myth and the Flight of Apollo 13: From News Event to Feature Film
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 26, Numbers 1-4, 1996
- pp. 40-51
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Opt I American Frontier Myth and the Flight of Apollo 13: From News Event to Feature Film Susan K. Opt University of Houston-Victoria A encan Frontier Myth and the Flight of Apollo 13: From News Eventto Feature Film he historical facts of Apollo 13's flight go something like this: On April 11, 1970, at 1:13 p.m. CST, NASA launched its third moon landing mission, Apollo 13. It would go into moon orbit on April 15. Astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise would fly the lunar landing module, Aquarius, to an area ofthe moon called Frau Mauro. There they WOUld Collect SOil Samples and run experiments. Originalcrewportrait. From lefttorightare^tronaubJamesLovell.ThomasMattingly J r r pater replaced byJackSwigert), and Fred W. Haise in their space suits. After two days, they would lift off from the moon and rendezvous with the command module, Odyssey, piloted by astronaut Jack Swigert. Then they would return to Earth to splashdown on April 21. However, at 9:07 p.m. on April 13, as the space ship was about 200,000 miles from Earth, oxygen tank number 2, located in the service module, exploded. The explosion caused a quadruple systems failurethe service module lost the other oxygen tank and its three fuel cells which provided the command module's power. Mission Control attempted several procedures to prevent the loss of oxygen and power. When they did not work, Mission Control directed the astronauts to power up Aquarius and shut down Odyssey. At 10:50 p.m. the crew moved into Aquarius, where they lived for the remainder of the trip back to Earth. The moon mission was canceled, and, for the next four days, Mission Control devised and tested procedures to return the astronauts to Earth. The return trip required that the crew conserve resources such as electricity and water. When Apollo 13 reached Earth orbit, the astronauts powered up the command module, using re-entry batteries. They ejected the lunar landing module. On April 17, at 12:07 p.m. CST, the crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. End of story. 40 I Film & History The American Frontier in Film | Special In-Depth Section The Story's Variant Forms However, the telling of the story has not ended. Twenty-five years later, the 1970 news event has reached renewed popularity in books such as Lost Moon, in television specials such as PBS's Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back, and, most recently, in a major motion picture, Apollo 13. Movie director Ron Howard has remarked that no fiction could equal the real-life drama of the Apollo 13 flight (Apollo 13 exhibit). But what is it about this experience that makes it worth re-telling? How could a moon mission that did not accomplish its original goals later become the basis for an academy-awardwinning movie? Examining how an event is reported over time may provide clues to understanding the popularity of it and suggest characteristics of historical stories that make them worthy of later recounting in popular culture forms such as commercial films. This article highlights how the story ofApollo 13 has been told across time, beginning with the popular media coverage of 1970 and leading up to the current-day motion picture success Apollo 13. The historical event ofApollo 13 has become a narrative ofmythical and magical properties, ofheroic characters, and of the embodiment and promotion ofAmerican values—a story, that reinforces the frontier elements of American myth and character. America's Mythic Frontier and Its Stories Myths create continuity and commonness in a society , and offer explanations for the human condition (Robertson 17). They, in essence, tell us who we are, what our place is, and why we are here. As Slotkin notes, "Myths reflect the life of Man, but they also can shape and direct it, for good or ill. They are made ofwords, concepts, images, and they can kill a man" (51). Robertson writes that American myth, like all cultural myth, is constituted in our stories and experience: America is a memory—a memory of the lives and actions, the beliefs and efforts, of millions of human beings who have lived in American spaces, participated...