Apollo 13 | 1995
Very special FX in this surprisingly gripping account of the ill-fated 1970 moonflight. There’s far less location filming than you might imagine, since the gigantic Saturn V rockets, which carried the moon missions from Cape Kennedy, have long since been replaced by recyclable shuttles – which now too are history. As a consequence, much of the movie was tricked up in Hollywood.
The Saturn V launched in the movie is a one-twentieth scale model, while most of the sequence is computer generated. Mission Control, too, was filmed in the studios at Universal.
To achieve the authentic feeling of weightlessness, director Ron Howard filmed the Apollo capsule scenes on a set built inside a KC-135 cargo plane used for NASA training flights. The jet followed a 30,000 feet parabolic trajectory before going into a roller-coaster dive, giving 23 seconds of weightlessness to get a shot in the can.
The effect on stomach contents of ten days filming under these conditions earned the KC-135 the nickname the ‘Vomit Comet’. The plane flew from Ellington Airport (formerly Ellington Field), about 15 miles south of Houston, Texas.
Rather like some enormous dinosaur, NASA’s moving parts are a long, long way from its brain though, fortunately for space buffs who’ll doubtless want to explore the real thing, both sites can be visited.
Merritt Island, most of which is a wildlife reserve, is reached by I-405 from Titusville, on the coast 50 miles east of Orlando, or Route 3 north on Bennett Causeway from the town of Cocoa. The Visitor Complex is located between Range Road and East Avenue SW.
The basic Complex tour takes in IMAX® space films, exhibits and shows – including the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame with interactive spaceflight simulators. There are extra add-on goodies, too.
The 52-storey Vehicle Assembly Building, where the Saturn rockets were built, is seen in the movie, but the open door is another piece of computer generated trickery.
Even if NASA had been persuaded to open the 400-foot-high doors for filming, there wouldn’t have been a Saturn inside. Sophisticated motion-control techniques were used to add the rocket to a genuine helicopter shot. You can see one of the old Saturn rockets on the Space Center tour, though.
The other place to see a Saturn V is in the Rocket Park at the Johnson Space Center, about 20 miles south of Houston on I-45, Texas, site of the real Mission Control. Space Center Houston is the visitor center. The behind-the-scenes NASA Tram Tour takes you through the center, where you can visit the Historic Mission Control Center, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility or the current Mission Control Center.
You can also visit the ‘Florida’ motel with an ocean view where Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) spends the night before the launch, and where she ominously loses her wedding ring in the shower. It’s actually in Los Angeles: the Safari Inn, 1911 Olive Boulevard, near Buena Vista, just north of the Disney Studios in Burbank.
The apartments of astronauts Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) were in the old Ambassador Hotel, which stood at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, midtown Los Angeles, a regular movie star – seen in The Graduate, Oliver Stone’s The Doors, True Romance, S.W.A.T., Rocky and Se7en among many others – until being demolished in 2006.