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Praying Through a Problem: An Interview With Jerry Woodfill

On April 13, 1970, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert were 200,000 miles from Earth. As the crew of Apollo 13, they were headed to the moon, intending to land in the Fra Mauro area.

That objective suddenly changed when an oxygen tank in their service module exploded.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Alarms went off on board the spacecraft—and at mission control in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Houston.
 
Twenty-seven-year-old Jerry Woodfill, monitoring the spacecraft warning system at mission control, saw his panel go berserk. At first, he thought the system was merely acting up.
 
But it soon became apparent that the system, redesigned after the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967, was working ably and that there was a life-threatening problem.
 
“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” the astronauts told mission control.
 
That’s the phrase they really used, Woodfill, now 59, recently told EthicsDaily.com in a phone interview from Houston.
 
In director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Tom Hanks, portraying Commander Lovell, says, “Houston, we have a problem.” In reality, Lovell said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
 
But Woodfill, who has worked for NASA for 38 years, understands that filmmakers usually take some dramatic license, though they got much right on “Apollo 13.”
 
“I like the technical accuracy of the movie,” he said. “They thought enough about being professional. They actually recreated the entire capsule to the point that the actual alarm system that I was responsible for was in the right place.”
 
Woodfill is giving lots of interviews these days because that 1995 film—starring Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris—has been digitally re-mastered in the IMAX format for release in IMAX theaters across the country this fall.
 
Woodfill, however, has been talking to groups about the Apollo 13 mission since 1972, not long after he became a Christian. His message then and now: God’s hand can help us when we pray.
 
Woodfill uses the film as a springboard to talk about the “triumph of God’s spirit through prayer.” Though “Apollo 13” doesn’t use a traditional language of faith, Woodfill nevertheless sees the film as an opportunity to reach people who say, “You can’t be a Christian and be an intellectual.”
 
Woodfill grew up in northwest Indiana in the 1950s, watching the “space race” between Americans and Russians take off. He enjoyed math and science, but he really dreamed of playing basketball—like any good Hoosier, he said.
 
He shuffled between books and hoops, playing so well in the Indiana state basketball tournament that Rice University offered him a basketball scholarship. At Rice, however, his playing and studying slid, he said.
 
But on Sept. 12, 1962, he heard President John F. Kennedy deliver his famous “Moon Race” speech on the Rice campus.
 
“Well,” said Kennedy in his speech, “space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
 
Woodfill said the speech motivated him. He quit playing basketball and concentrated on studying. He did well academically, and NASA hired him to work on a spacecraft warning system.
 
That’s how he found himself monitoring the alarms on April 13, 1970. Woodfill wasn’t a Christian at the time of the accident, but others in the control room were, and the whole experience led him to start thinking about God.
 
Woodfill said one of the flight controllers, a Christian, started to pray that the controllers would not, by their ignorance, do anything to further jeopardize the astronauts’ lives. Remember, Woodfill said, the average flight controller was in his late 20s, and never before had they faced an emergency of this sort.
 
Woodfill believes God brought the astronauts back home safely. Recalling the book of Esther, he said circumstances and events were providential, not coincidental.
 
For example, he recalled one obstacle, dramatized in the movie, involving square filters needing to fit round receptacles for the astronauts to continue breathing. The dilemma was solved with … duct tape.
 
Woodfill also said that, on the night of the disaster, a movie called “Marooned” was showing in the neighborhood’s cheap theater. The movie’s plot revolved around whether three astronauts could survive being stranded in space with little oxygen.
 
Woodfill said the lunar lander’s power manager had seen the film that very night. When the power manager later got the call to report to mission control, he recalled scenarios in the movie that approximated scenarios flight controllers would really face—including one involving a technique of “jumping power” from one capsule to another.
 
The odds were stacked against the crew, Woodfill said. One commentator gave them one chance in 10 for survival.
 
But the crew did survive, and their landing, despite numerous obstacles, was “among the most accurate … in the entire Apollo program.”
 
A seeming disaster became a momentous triumph, which in turn sparked an award-winning movie. For Woodfill, it’s more than just a new IMAX movie. It’s an opportunity:
 
“I’m so grateful that God used those guys to make a movie where I’m able to share my faith in Christ with many people.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.