Published in appreciation for the opportunities created by the team who created the movie Apollo 13

Reflections since the July 1995 release of Apollo 13

by Jerry Woodfill
Warning System Engineer
Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team

I should have written this essay five years ago when a Christian friend suggested it. It's about the movie APOLLO 13 and how beneficial it has been in witnessing for Christ. You may not know it, but I have been telling the story Ron Howard and Tom Hanks made into a movie since 1972. My venues have been modest in comparison, small churches, prayer groups, Christian fellowships, an occasional Gospel convention, Christian radio, or television station. Audiences have been as few as a single person and as many as a 1,000 in a sanctuary, but the testimony of how prayer was answered in the rescue has always lifted the faith of those who heard. (And most certainly that of Jerry Woodfill each time he spoke of it.)

But why do I choose, 7 years after APOLLO 13 first appeared in July of 1995, to finally give credit where it is due? Call it circumstance or Providence, but it is a result of an e-mail I received at my desk at NASA in Houston which led to this essay. Like many in Scripture, I believe in "signs" from "above" in the sense that they may be urgings from God to speak up and act. That e-mail message came on Friday, June 14th, 2002, the 37th anniversary of my career at the Johnson Space Center. It was from a faith-based media company called GRACE HILL MEDIA. Their mission was to encourage the Christian community to attend films with Christian content. Though APOLLO 13 was seven years old, a re-release as an IMAX movie was planned for the Fall of 2002.

The 37th anniversary e-mail and my failure to share thanks for the film compelled me to be involved in the project. God was giving me a second chance to speak my praise. More importantly, He was making a new and greater way of sharing all those miracles He wrought bringing Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert safely back to Earth in April of 1970. The GRACE HILL representative shared a few ideas about how I might serve. One concept was a series of radio interviews with Christian stations throughout the United States. While this was the kind of outreach I've enjoyed over the past three decades, I wanted to especially explain how the movie benefits God's kingdom.

First, let me speak to my experience. I'd been President of a local men's Christian fellowship nearly 15 years. As such, I'd spent thousands of dollars advertising our meetings, buying meals, and providing for speakers' expenses. Besides the cost, there were as many hours expended in phone calls inviting men to attend our four meetings each month. In 1994, I counted 8 men who had come to Christ as a result. A few weeks after the release of APOLLO 13 in Houston, I got a call from a similar men's fellowship near the Houston Galleria to share that same Apollo 13 testimony I'd given about 500 times. Arriving at the meeting, their chairman was amazed, "We've been having about 50 men, and 125 are here today because of the movie." I gave the same "well-reheased" testimonies spoken since 1972 and made a closing appeal for those who had never accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior to do so. Over 30 hands shot-up wanting to become Christian believers. There were lawyers, business men, and other professions among the hands. These men prayed the prayer of salvation with me. THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT GOD USED THE MOVIE APOLLO 13 TO ACCOMPLISH THIS.

I've always enjoyed unique venues for my testimony because of the interest in space exploration, but never to the extent that I've seen since APOLLO 13 was released. In the concluding five months of 1995, I spoke 30 times and counted 300 men, women, boys and girls accepting Christ as Lord and Savior in those meetings. And the invitations, like Captain Kirk's Enterprise, have taken me to share Christ among groups where "no man has gone before" to witness the power of prayer and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There have been numerous AARP clubs, along with Rotary and other service clubs, the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, key note appearances before a national Dupont Conference and the Society of Financial Crimes Investigators (I didn't know there was such a group), along with a considerable increase in Gospel based groups of all persuasions and denominations.

All these opportunities came because of Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and all those who so wonderfully crafted the movie APOLLO 13. I'm especially proud of Mike Bostick, son of my old friend Jerry Bostick. Jerry and I were Sunday school superintendents at the local Methodist Church, I at 9:30 A.M., Jerry at 11:00 A.M. While Jerry played a far more crucial role in the rescue of Apollo 13 than I did, his finest work was being Mike's father. Mike worked for Ron Howard and suggested Ron acquire the rights to Commander Jim Lovell's book about Apollo 13. Mike was among those who contributed so wonderfully to the movie APOLLO 13. Thanks Mike I'll never forget you for that.

From left to right: Ron Howard, Mike Bostick, Jerry Bostick, Tom Hanks

But enough of how APOLLO 13 has helped my ministry. I've often wondered why God so powerfully has used the film to encourage folks to address issues of faith. The movie doesn't preach a message, i.e., there is no "plan of salvation" presented. Unlike my APOLLO 13 testimonies, the movie does not demonstrate specific prayers and their answers, though there is a well recognized portion of the movie documenting the outpouring of intercessions across the land. Here's what I think is a biblical reason: Have you ever read the Book of Esther in the Old Testament? You won't find any mention of God. Yet, the alignment of circumstances is so obviously God-ordained that the book is one of the greatest witnesses of God's hand in the life of believers. The Book of Esther certainly shows the importance of prayer in the outcome just as APOLLO 13 records its presence that April week. A plot is at work to kill every Hebrew on the planet. Because of Esther's uncle's prayers, the King can't sleep. He reads a diary of court events and discovers that he has not rewarded Esther's Uncle for saving his life. As a result, the Hebrews are spared. Why couldn't the King sleep? Why did he choose to read a dull record book? The unspoken answer has to be prayer, the favor of the One who watches over the lives of each of us.

Likewise, we have three Apollo astronauts, likely to be the first to perish in space. Carbon dioxide gas from their own lungs will kill them. A plentiful supply of square filters will not fit into the round barrel of the rescue ship. Miraculously, DUCT TAPE SAVES THEM. Why was duct tape stowed on board? Why did someone conceive of using it? Why? Why? Why? Again, like Esther and her people, Jim Lovell and his crew benefited from favor from that same One who acted in millenniums past. As Scripture says, "He is the same yesterday, today, and forever." Howard, Hanks, and Universal were His voice of testimony creating the movie APOLLO 13.

Finally, apart from the obvious impact on outreach for Christ and His Kingdom, APOLLO 13 offers hope to all those facing insurmountable trials. Universal's movie speaks a voice of encouragement through the "big screen" which is to be, thanks to IMAX and Universal Studios, a REALLY-REALLY BIG IMAX screen. Here it is: All know that the quote "Houston, we have a problem" has become a way of phrasing every conceivable hardship, flaw, or difficulty faced in everyday life. But thanks to APOLLO 13, it has been replaced by a more wonderful saying, FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION. I can still hear Gene Kranz's words as an inner voice. Through my headset that April 13th, 1970 Monday night, Gene was like the voice of the Lord. As a Christian, I know when God is speaking to me through another person. At the time, I was not a believer, but I definitely knew that the confident demeanor and fearless timbre of Gene Kranz's voice was coming from above. I never heard him say, while I had my head set on, "Failure is not an option," but what he did say, and how he said it, and acted it, and believed it, spoke so loudly in my spirit that I didn't need to hear him say those exact words. He wholly embodied them in a way that affected all of us. [Click here for the story of the origin of the quote: "Failure is not an option."]

Some have been bothered by the curse words in the movie. So Parents, I suggest you view a video of the movie and decide if it's appropriate for your children in the IMAX version, but let me say that you won't read any off color language in the air-to-ground transcripts, or hear them in the over-the-air communications. This is not to say that many of us didn't use such words from time to time. I know I did. Consider them simply as creative license in the interest of realism. I'm told there are 50 such instances, yet the movie did receive a PG rating rather than PG-13. We know that the Lord let us know about David's flaws as well as graphic descriptions in the Song of Solomon which could be considered inappropriate, for children, if depicted in movies. Think about it.

But I do know, as a result of the rescue of Apollo 13, I found Christ as my Lord and Savior and such words are no longer in my vocabulary. And I do know that the same Spirit which moves me to tears every time I speak of the rescue of Apollo 13, speaks in the same way to Gene Kranz, a Catholic layman, a believer in God. It's no secret that Gene cries openly, on camera no less, when he speaks of what was accomplished. He, like I, senses, we had help from above. Those of us who have an inner witness of His presence in our hearts sometimes behave this way. We can't help it. So, please cut those characters in the movie a little slack, even when they blurt out an inappropriate word or two.

Besides those language "flaws", some have found a few errors in representing the NASA technology of the 1960s. Comparing APOLLO 13 to all the other movies I have viewed about Apollo technology, I find that Howard, Hanks, and Universal Studios achieved unbelievable realism and fidelity. Consider that the vehicles were built and flown a quarter century in the past. In fact, they erred so little that there is sort of a cult of investigators trying to find the smallest of flaws in the movie's portrayal of those 60s moon ships. And before we criticize the special effects, I want all to know about a meeting I had last night. Speaking to a group of teachers about the movie APOLLO 13, I was surprised to hear one say, "If it weren't for the movie APOLLO 13, my 6th grade students wouldn't know how America got to the Moon. The movie got their interest and attention." My point is that I'm grateful for the realism of the movie in educating youth on a by-gone era of space exploration.

Because my responsibility was the Apollo warning system, I was amazed at how accurately my system was depicted in the movie, even down to the actual lights that illuminated on the panel of warning lights at the time of the explosion. However, I was slightly dismayed when I stop-framed through the sequence at the time of the explosion to see the "C/W" light on. C/W stood for Caution and Warning Detection Unit, my direct responsibility. Having the light on did not mean that an alarm had occurred rather: it meant my system had failed. Indeed, it hadn't failed. It worked wonderfully well as the first indication of the O2 tank explosion that might have killed the crew. But I forgive you Mr. Howard, and Mr. Hanks, and company. You have done a wonderful job of achieving the technical fidelity of Apollo.

But back to that quote, "Failure is not an option." Part of the purpose of this essay, besides giving my thanks for APOLLO 13's ministry benefits, was to understand how the movie APOLLO 13 has encouraged others. To this end, I did an INTERNET search using the GOOGLE search engine. I entered the words Apollo 13 and prayer in the search field, with quotes around the words Apollo 13. GOOGLE found over 1500 pages using this criteria. Studying the first several hundred revealed far too many to cite in this essay, but there were two which moved me to tears. In closing, I'd like to paraphrase and partially quote their content:

A mother and father's son fell from a tree breaking his spine. The day he broke his spine, doctors said he'd probably be paralyzed for life. His parents said, "no way." His mother recalled, "One of my comments at that point was from Apollo 13, which was, 'Failure is not an option.'" Well, with the same resolve exhibited by the movie APOLLO 13, the father searched the Internet and found an experimental drug that offered some promise if given within 72 hours of the injury. Like the movie Apollo 13, this was accomplished, but in 76 hours. However, though it seemed like an answer to their prayers, there was no assurance it would work in their son's case. But it did! And 10 weeks later, he walked out of the hospital. Though doctors could not be sure it was a result of the drug, they admitted it was, as many view the rescue of Apollo 13, something of a miracle.

The second incident deals with the account of a daughter whose father is dying with cancer. She writes in hopes of encouraging others who must care for loved ones on the brink of eternity.

"Well... Apollo 13 has become my role model, my support, my comfort, and my favorite movie at 3 AM when I can't sleep because I'm so overwhelmed with my own life. I've already written a review of Apollo 13 the movie. You can go look it up. I said it was great. I said you should watch it. But this isn't just a review of the movie. This is about how I have emotionally connected with the movie. This is about how I use the movie as a crutch to get me through the day. This is about how Apollo 13 keeps me sane in an insane time!"

"They say that Apollo 13 was a Successful Failure because of all they learned from the experience. I'm hoping that my experience with cancer will also be a Successful Failure. The doctor has already told us that my dad won't be cured and any treatments we do won't change that. So I already know that I'm going to be a failure... Nothing I do can save my father's life. But maybe I can learn and grow. Just maybe my dad and I can have some more good times together. Maybe we can have some fun and overcome some challenges on this journey. Then I'd say it would be a successful failure for sure. Sometimes I'm surprised at how my life seems to parallel the hardships the astronauts had to endure. I find myself doing things for my dad that I never imaged I would have to do."

"The one line in Apollo 13 that echoes in my mind is Gene Kranz saying, "Failure is not an option!" I know that he meant they had to bring the astronauts back alive. I also know that my dad is dying and I can't do anything to change that -- except pray for a miracle. I am praying for a miracle, but I also know that I have to be prepared for my dad's death. However, I still insist that FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION! So, if death is inevitable -- what do I mean? Well, I mean that whatever happens, I have to make sure I don't give up. I don't lose sight of the wonderful times we can still have. I don't lose my humor or my love for life... I have to make sure that I do my best to make every day with my dad as wonderful as possible, that the end of his life is as good as it can be, and we learn something new every day we are together. I also need to remember that no matter how bad things get, I love my daddy and he loves me. If I just remember that... I can't fail."

I submit to you that only a movie inspired by the One who overcame death, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, could give the kind of comfort described so wonderfully and beautifully above. May all who have not seen the movie APOLLO 13 experience it in the IMAX format. More importantly, may all who HAVE seen APOLLO 13 see it again. Let us use APOLLO 13 as God's tool to bring many more into His kingdom through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jerry Woodfill
July 17, 2002

For 46 years, Jerry Woodfill has been employed by NASA in Houston. He holds BAEE and BSEE degrees from Rice University. At the onset of the lunar landing program, he managed the spacecraft warning systems so that he was monitoring spacecraft Eagle's descent when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. Likewise, on April 13, 1970, Jerry was monitoring Apollo 13's warning system when the vehicle exploded. His system was first to alert mission control to the life-threatening malfunction depicted in the Tom Hanks-Ron Howard movie APOLLO 13. For his participation in the rescue of Apollo 13, he shared the Presidential Medal of Freedom as a member of the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team.

For a free presentation of this message to your church or group, contact Jerry Woodfill at woodfill@spaceacts.com .


For more on Apollo 13, click here.

Return to Space Acts Home Page