Log Line

With the help of ground-based mission engineers, an experienced astronaut leads the crew of an aborted moon mission as they attempt to return safely to Earth.

What Happens in the Story

Medium: Film

Writer(s): William Broyles Jr., Al Reinert

Director(s): Ron Howard

Production Co.(s): Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment

Adapted from: Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 [Later renamed Apollo 13] (Book) by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger (© 1994)

The film Apollo 13 recounts the dramatic unfolding of real-life events that took place over six days in April 1970 when the U.S. Apollo 13 moon mission suffered an accidental explosion in the service module that contained the main power and life-support systems for the mission. The explosion—which resulted from a series of unlikely events, some of which occurred long before liftoff—turned a dangerous enterprise that the American public had begun to consider routine into a riveting series of events followed eagerly by people across the world.

On April 11, 1970, the Saturn 5 rocket that carried the lunar space mission Apollo 13 lifted off from its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Onboard were mission commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert, and lunar module pilot Fred Haise. The monumental endeavor of landing on the moon, which had captivated the world just nine months before when it was accomplished for the first time by the crew of Apollo 11, had quickly come to be seen as routine, and public interest in the Apollo 13 mission was low.

Two days into the mission, things go terribly wrong.

Two days into the mission, however, a simple maintenance task of stirring the onboard oxygen tanks led to a short circuit, which in turn created an explosion that blew a 13-foot section of the service module into space, reduced the mission oxygen power supplies, and turned the lunar excursion module (LEM) into a lifeboat. From that point on, the world was riveted to the coordinated efforts of the crew and mission support engineers to attempt to return the astronauts safely to Earth.

The difficult task of bringing the astronauts safely home involved the overcoming of numerous obstacles—some related to the particulars of their trajectory and landing; others related to keeping them alive long enough to make those particulars matter. To preserve power for possibly reentry, for example, they had to shut down all systems that were not essential to life support—first in the command module and then in the LEM—not knowing if the systems could be restarted when necessary. They also had to improvise a carbon-dioxide filtration system to maintain a breathable atmosphere and to execute a manual course-correction to hit a narrow "reentry corridor" which, if missed, would either result in their capsule burning up in the atmosphere or skipping like a rock on a pond and heading irretrievably into space.

To dramatize these real-life events, the storytellers select mission commander Jim Lovell as the main character.

To dramatize these real-life events, the storytellers wisely identify and focus on a main character whose personal endeavor in the film serves as an empathetic focal point for the efforts of all those involved. And although they could have chosen any of several Earthbound characters, such as lead Flight Director Gene Kranz, they select mission commander Jim Lovell. It is his personal life and aspirations that we-the-audience are made most privy to; therefore, he serves as the vehicle through which we experience the story.

The choice of Jim Lovell as the main character is smart not only because he is co-author of the book on which the film is based but because, as one of the astronauts to be rescued, his stakes for the success of the attempt are much higher than those of any of the characters back on Earth. The choice is also smart from a thematic standpoint, because the initial Apollo 13 mission is, for him, one of "return"—that is, a going back to the moon that he orbited as part of the Apollo 8 mission. Consequently, it aligns nicely with the grand mission of return that drives the story.

A Look Under the Hood

Although much of the drama in the film concerns keeping the astronauts alive, all efforts to do so are made in service of the larger purpose of returning them safely to Earth. Consequently, Apollo 13 is a regain story, which is why the initial desire of the main character to return (regain proximity) to the moon fits so nicely into the overall theme.

Although much of the drama in the film concerns keeping the astronauts alive, Apollo 13 is a regain story.

With respect to the issues addressed by the story, the storytellers focus on two primary attributes of the crew and mission engineers—resourcefulness and commitment to not give up, both of which are presented as the bases of advisable endeavors. When the explosion occurs, sending the spacecraft spinning off course, it is the dogged commitment and efforts of the crew that bring it back under control. And when matters related to the power supply and breathable atmosphere threaten to derail their safe return to Earth, it is the mission engineers who develop innovative solutions to keep hope alive for success.

Based on these premises, it is possible to state the proposition for Apollo 13 quite broadly as:

  • One should attempt to employ resourcefulness and resolve to undertake a mission of return to a safe haven, because success in the attempt will result in salvation from dangerous circumstances.

As the spacecraft nears Earth on April 17, the crew undocks the command module from the service module and gets its first glimpse at the damage wrought by the explosion. Then they prepare for reentry, not knowing whether the integrity of the heat shield on their capsule has been compromised. Shortly after reentry begins, the capsule loses radio contact with the mission controllers and, after four breathtaking minutes of silence, becomes visible in the sky with its parachutes fully deployed. Rescue divers drop into the sea from helicopters and secure the crew—and the mission of return is successfully concluded.

In this case, the main character (and supporting characters) succeed in their attempted endeavor, and we-the-audience breathe a pleased sigh of relief upon revelation of the outcome. Therefore, Apollo 13 stands as a fine example of a succeed/pleased story. And because no life is damaged or lost in the attempt, the ending can be classified as happy.

Elements to Admire

Apollo 13 serves as a fine illustration of a fundamental principle described in Chapter 5 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story—that is, that in most cases the main character does not possess his intent at the beginning of the story. In this case, the initial intent involves a gain attempt, at least on the part of the crew and mission controllers—that is, the successful completion of a new mission to the moon.

But it is the explosion in the oxygen tank that serves as the inciting incident and starts the engine of the story. And from that point on in the film, the efforts of the characters are focused on regaining a specific condition of value (the presence of the crew, safe and sound, back on Earth), and the initial gain intent is jettisoned... revealing itself to be nothing more than a booster rocket that moves the story into position for the inciting incident at the end of Act I.


NOTE: This story was suggested for analysis by Academy member D.J. Lee.


For More Information

For details regarding these concepts and terms, see the "Discovering the Soul of Your Story—Overview" video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Library.

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