It’s little wonder that the events of 1970’s Apollo 13 were made into a movie. Illness and last-minute changes of crew, an exploded oxygen tank, dwindling electrical power, limited water supplies, a potentially damaged heat shield, the lives of three astronauts at stake, and a scramble to get them back to Earth safely—all ingredients for a great film.
Although the mission’s original objective of landing on the moon had to be abandoned, the (spoiler alert) successful recovery of the crew is still one of NASA’s greatest achievements and a true testament to what teamwork and outside-the-box thinking can do. The mission’s commander, Jim Lovell, wrote a book in 1994 about his experiences, the film rights to which were unsurprisingly quickly snapped up.
Ron Howard was named as director, and an all-star cast including Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise were signed on to play the astronauts and key players in Mission Control.
Before filming even began, the actors were given a crash course on the history and engineering of the real Apollo 13. Several major players in NASA at the time of Apollo 13—among them commander Jim Lovell—were on hand to provide assistance and tutorage on a range of subjects, even teaching Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon the functions of each of the 500-odd buttons and switches inside the spacecraft.
When it came to building models of the interiors of those spacecraft to use as sets, the production crew turned to a company called SpaceWorks, a division of the Cosmosphere museum in Kansas. It was the perfect and obvious choice, as it had extensive experience in building high-fidelity replicas of NASA spacecraft for museums and even restoring several genuine artefacts for display.
With the sets built, thoughts turned to how to recreate the effects of zero gravity experienced by the astronauts in space. CGI in the 1990s still had a long way to go, as did convincing wire work, so the only realistic option was to use practical effects.
The solution came in the form of a Boeing KC-135 nicknamed the ‘Vomit Comet’, an aircraft used by NASA itself to train its astronauts. It was flown in large arcs, also called parabolas. At the top of each parabola, those inside the plane experienced microgravity and started to float. It’s like the feeling you get when going over the crest of a bridge or when you go for a ride on a rollercoaster.
With each parabola only providing 25 seconds of weightlessness, dozens—even hundreds—of them were needed to get any meaningful data or film. Unsurprisingly, not everyone has a strong enough stomach to deal with this, hence the nickname ‘Vomit Comet’.
With a six-month lease for the use of the KC-135 secured, the SpaceWorks sets were installed inside and the cast and crew got to work.
It was a tricky affair, not least because filming could only be done in those 25-second bursts. According to Kevin Bacon, they would do some 40 parabolas each morning and 40 each afternoon with a break for lunch in between. What’s more, while the sets were secured to the floor of the plane and were therefore held in place, everything else was most definitely not. Dozens of takes had to be scrapped because of both actors and props simply floating out of view of the cameras, or vice versa.
Cast and crew alike would also have to take anti-nausea tablets before filming, but that didn’t stop one unfortunate cameraman from being sick all over Kevin Bacon.
The Vomit Comet was primarily used to film full-body shots, with most close-ups filmed on terra firma with the actors sitting on a kind of see-saw that would slowly bob them up and down in an impression of zero-gravity. These shots were then stitched together with full-body clips from the Vomit Comet in the editing process.
Despite the difficulty and uniqueness of the filming process, the movie itself was a great success. It was released in cinemas in the UK on 22 September 1995 and grossed $355 million at the global box office, making it the third highest-grossing film of the year. It was also nominated for nine awards at the Oscars, two of which it won (Best Film Editing and Best Sound).