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Story of NASA During the Space Race in the Movies ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’

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NASA has been a very influential organization for this generation beginning with the Space Race. More people seem to be looking up at the stars and wondering how can they get to one of those specks. Right now, our destination is landing on Mars but that is only possible because of the early programs NASA started in order to get us from the ground all the way to another celestial body, called the Moon. Two movies showed us this journey and even the rough patches in between. The science used to achieve the feats in the movies are influential to modern space flight and will continue to be useful. Unless we can bend the laws of physics and ignore orbital mechanics like ‘Star Wars’ does. ‘Apollo 13’ tells the journey of Captain Lovell and his crew making their way to land on the moon again. There was an accident during the trip towards that left the crew in peril. The crew fixed it using some physics and ingenuity. ‘Hidden Figures’ is about a much earlier time when we were trying to have a successful orbit. There were many influential people during the first iconic NASA missions, but some of the key people went unnoticed due to the state of America at the time. These two movies showed the space program in different lights but they both managed to capture exactly why the space program was important. That is the importance of teamwork. The Apollo 13 mission required all of NASA in order to bring the crew back. ‘Hidden Figures’ showed that we need all the members of NASA, women and African Americans alike, in order to beat the Soviets in the famous Space Race.

‘Apollo 13’ was the most science heavy of the two movies, but ‘Hidden Figures’ had some key moments that were key to the future of NASA. At the beginning of ‘Apollo 13’, we are introduced to the crew simulating docking with the LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module. These tests were critical for exposing the pilots to the more difficult areas of the missions and what to do in the event in an emergency. These simulations pay off in the end as we see with the famous device created by NASA to allow better filtration of the carbon dioxide within the LEM (Howard & Grazer, ‘Apollo 13’). A critical moment of the movie was the docking and liftoff of the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V is the most powerful rocket to this date, only rivaled by the current Falcon Heavy, and the movie shows just how serious this rocket was (Deskarati, 2014). There are five engines on the main stage of the rocket and these engines light a few seconds before launch in order to be at full power when launch actually occurs. We also see chunks of ice falling off the side of the rocket. This is from the supercooled liquid oxygen used as an oxidizer for the RP-1 fuel (Howard & Grazer, ‘Apollo 13’).

After the stage separation and circularization burn the crew gets into orbit, and we can see Fred puke. His puke comes out in chunks rather than the normal liquid spray we see on earth. This is because they are in a zero-gravity environment so there is no force to pull apart the puke. We also see this when the crew drinks water (Howard & Grazer, ‘Apollo 13’). There is a moment on the far side of the Moon where Captain Lovell daydreams about landing on the Moon. We can see him bouncing around. This is because the force of gravity on the Moon is a sixth of the Earth’s gravity. During their final approach the crew and NASA are fanatic about the reentry. This is the most crucial part, apart from liftoff, of the mission. The heat shield has a limited amount of ablative material in order to save weight and thus can only take so much heat. Too much and the Command Module will burn up upon reentry. The heat around the Command Module is also shown in the movie as the crew enters the atmosphere. This is the plasma created by the friction of the craft on the air. Consequently, this plasma also causes them to lose communication with NASA temporarily (Howard & Grazer, ‘Apollo 13’).

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‘Apollo 13’ had many great scenes showing the science of space travel but the movie was just that at some points, a movie. The space scenes had sound on the outside of the craft. There is no sound in space since it is a vacuum. Also, when the crew was on the ‘dark side’ of the Moon they could still see the Moon as if it were being illuminated by the Sun (Howard & Grazer, ‘Apollo 13’). Obviously, this is more for the general audience to get more enjoyment but it is still wrong science and hardly any movies are able to avoid this.

‘Hidden Figures’ is set in a much different time than ‘Apollo 13’. This means there are no sophisticated computers on board the Command Module and the craft has to be manually piloted in certain sequences. During this time period, tension between the Soviets and the U.S. was high. The soviets had just sent a man to space by the name of Yuri Gagarin. The U.S. needed to get a man in space but could not figure out why they were unable to finally get a capsule above the Karman line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Katherine discovers that the traditional Redstone rockets just were not powerful enough to lift the craft high enough (Melfi, ‘Hidden Figures’). The movie also shows the first computer that was really able to calculate the long and rigorous equations needed to predict the landing location of a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere from space. This IBM machine was difficult to use but a woman, named Dorothy, was able to learn the machine code and use it effectively (Melfi, ‘Hidden Figures’). The final hurdle to tackle was the Command Module itself and how it would survive reentry/takeoff. Mary Jackson was crucial in figuring out the engineering behind a sturdy Command Module. Alan Shepard was strapped in the early Command Module, named Freedom 7, and set to liftoff on the Atlas rocket. During the ascent stage we hear ground control talk about reaching a point called Max-Q. This is the point where the spacecraft experiences the highest amount of aerodynamic forces upon the craft (Melfi, ‘Hidden Figures’). This is a critical moment for the craft as it could tear the whole thing apart.

This movie had fewer faults with the science than ‘Apollo 13’, but it had less science intensive scenes than ‘Apollo 13’. The biggest mistake ‘Hidden Figures’ made was the cinematic of the Soyuz rocket at the beginning. The Soyuz stages and separates the four boosters, making the Korolev Cross, too late in the flight. That stage would have been separated much sooner, about 41 kilometers above the surface of the Earth (Laylan, 2017). The movie was still a testament to the teamwork needed for the early missions to succeed.

‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ were amazing in telling the story of NASA during the Space Race. They also showed just how critical the teams at NASA are. Without everyone working together none of these accomplishments could have been pulled off. The two movies are a testament to some of the greatest moments of the 1960s. The physics were mostly spot on in the movies and the critical parts of space travel were exemplified. These movies allow people to see just how much work goes into putting people in orbit of the Earth or landing on the Moon. The next destination is Mars and the amazing feats of NASA are going to be blown out of the water when the first person touches down on the Martian surface.

Works Cited

  1. Deskarati, Jim. “The Most Powerful Machine Ever Built by Man”. Deskarati, 29 Oct. 2014,
  2. Grazer, Brian. Apollo 13. Universal City Studios, Inc., 1995, Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.
  3. Laylan. “Soyuz Launch Sequence”. VITA Mission, 29 Aug. 2017,
  4. Melfi, Theodore, director. Hidden Figures. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.

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Story of NASA During the Space Race in the Movies ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“Story of NASA During the Space Race in the Movies ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Story of NASA During the Space Race in the Movies ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Sept. 2023].
Story of NASA During the Space Race in the Movies ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Sept 30]. Available from:
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