Real-Life Rocket

The 1995 film Apollo 13 is a historically-accurate recounting of the problems encountered by astronauts and engineers during the 1970 USA space mission of the same name.

Although I didn’t see the launch of the Apollo 13 on TV, I did watch NASA’s live broadcast of the 1969 launch of the Apollo 11 (along with millions of other Americans glued to their television sets). I was a young child at the time, and I remember that day well. My entire family assembled in front of the TV and waited in suspense to see if the rocket would actually work. When the Apollo 11 lifted off the launch pad and flew straight up into space, it seemed like magic.

NASA filmed all its launches including the Apollo 13, making it possible for future generations of VFX artists to study the appearance and motion of a real-life rocket launch.

From this viewpoint, the expelled fuel looks like white smoke. To my little-child perceptions, it looked like rockets ran on steam!

Then the producers of the film Apollo 13 provided their own slightly more dramatic take on the launch. I’ve automatically set up the video below to jump to the 2-minute mark, where the launch takes place.

The orange fireballs expelled from the rocket would actually only be visible if the camera were very close to the nozzles, in which case the camera would burn to a crisp almost immediately. But it’s a virtual camera, so we can get right in there and see the burn, feel the heat and vibrations, and understand how colossally huge was the explosion that got this very heavy piece of machinery into space. By the time the burning fuel reaches a point where spectators can see it, it has turned completely white. As for that amazing closeup of the rocket passing upwards, that was what we saw in our imaginations!

I’m impressed with how accurate the launch sequence is with regard to physics while still managing to give some exciting views, and capture the drama of the moment in a way that we couldn’t see on TV during the actual launch. In fact, the entire movie scores high marks for physics accuracy. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it, if only for the physics!

Post Author: Michele Bousquet

Michele Bousquet is the author of Physics for Animators. A longtime animator, teacher, and writer, Michele has written more than 20 books on computer graphics. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from McGill University.