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Feature: 'Apollo' program lives on

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, March 25 (UPI) -- Nearly 35 years after a near-disastrous space mission, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell says he has long since learned to see the mission as a success -- the way it is depicted in Ron Howard's 1995 movie "Apollo 13," now coming out in a 10th anniversary special-edition DVD.

By 1970 space travel had become somewhat taken for granted, if not routine, by the U.S. public. The movie makes it clear that U.S. TV networks had moved from the wall-to-wall coverage of the space program during the '60s, when NASA consistently made headlines with its accelerated program to meet President John F. Kennedy's 1962 challenge -- to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the decade was over.

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Once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface in 1969, the Apollo program that got them there settled -- perhaps inevitably -- into an almost anticlimactic phase. The space program got the United States' attention again less than a year later, though, with a simple phrase from Lovell: "Houston, we have a problem."

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The words entered the cultural lexicon as an instantly recognizable expression of a sudden breakdown in an otherwise dependable routine -- with potentially calamitous consequences. Or maybe just a punch line to be used when even the smallest thing goes wrong.

Either way, it would be hard to come up with an application for the line that Lovell has not heard before.

"Sometimes a new one comes up that's pretty funny," he said in an interview with United Press International, "but I think of I've heard most of them."

Lovell had been tantalizingly close to the moon before the Apollo 13 mission, as a member of the Apollo 8 crew. Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders became the first humans to be captured by a gravitational field other than the Earth's when they orbited the moon at Christmastime in 1968.

The crew took time out from its intense concentration on technical matters for a Christmas Eve message to Earth.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," said Lovell as he joined Borman and Anders in readings from the book of Genesis.

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A major part of the storyline in Ron Howard's Oscar-winning movie is the importance Lovell attached to landing on the moon -- and the letdown he felt when the Apollo 13 mission was instantly transformed from a trip to the moon into a harrowing struggle to limp back to Earth. To this day, Lovell acknowledges that his inability to touch down on the moon remains a major disappointment.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I look at it and kind of figure, 'Gee, I was that close to it twice and never landed.'"

Lovell said the Apollo 13 mission was considered a failure within the NASA culture, which he said runs on successes.

"You get appropriations on successes, not failures," he said.

Lovell said that Howard's movie -- starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, with Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert, Bill Paxton as Fred Haise and Ed Harris as ground control honcho Gene Kranz -- contributed to a change in public perception about Apollo 13.

"The movie shows that, in reality, the flight was a triumph of the ability to recover," he said.

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It is not uncommon for Hollywood, for reasons of artistic license, to change the facts around true stories. But Lovell said "Apollo 13" is true in almost every respect.

"The one incident that was not true in real life was the argument between Swigert and Haise," he said.

Howard told him he needed the scene to dramatize the strain and anxiety in a way that he couldn't accomplish "just having a guy's face on the screen with moisture coming down." Lovell said the change made no difference to the truth of the matter.

He also acknowledged that the casting of Hanks took some liberties with the facts, because Hanks -- who was nominated for an acting Oscar for his performance -- didn't look anything at all like him.

"Ron asked me who I wanted to play the part," said Lovell. "Up to that time I had not been a movie fan, but I'd seen 'Dances with Wolves,' so I said Kevin Costner, because he looked like I did when I was his age."

Costner was not available, because he was already working on "Waterworld."

Lovell himself had a small part in the movie, but he said he definitely did not catch the acting bug from the experience.

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"We kind of follow the careers of the people -- Hanks, Howard," he said. "We tend to want to see the stuff that Bill, Kevin and Ed are involved in. That's as far that I'm involved in the movies."

Lovell's association with Hanks continues. One of Lovell's prized possessions is a 20-by-8 mural behind the main bar at Lovells of Lake Forest, the restaurant he and his family operate in Lake Forest, Ill. "Steeds of Apollo" by artist Luman Winter depicts the classic myth of Apollo, whose mission was to pull the sun across the sky.

The mural was commissioned in 1969 by the St. Regis Hotel in New York, and the Apollo 13 crew asked Winter to do the official insignia for their uniform patch. The mural dropped out of sight when the St. Regis was refurbished -- and Hanks found it at an art auction in 1994.

"He bought it and sent it to us," said Lovell, "and now it's on display in the restaurant."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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