Gerry Griffin is not only a pioneer in human space flight, he is also an actor. The former director of the NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston starred in both Contact and Deep Impact as a mission control team member. Off-screen, Griffin starred as the technical advisor for both films, not to mention his work on Apollo 13 and the recently released science-fiction thriller Apollo 18. We were lucky enough to get the inside scoop on Apollo 18 from Griffin, plus some behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Apollo 13 and why he thinks scientists benefit from science advising.
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in aviation and aeronautical engineering?
My interest in aviation started when I was just a child during World War II. I was impressionable and I saw airplanes flying around. At about 8 or 9 years old, I developed a keen interest in flying. By the time I was a teenager, I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to be associated with aviation. And of course, in those days, there weren’t space programs or careers.
I went to Texas A&M, got my bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and went on to the Air Force. I was commissioned right out of college, flew for four years in the Air Force. Then I got out and joined the space program, because it had just begun. I was fortunate enough to get a position in NASA. I became a Guidance and Navigation Officer in the control center. It was kind of funny in those days because none of us had been trained in orbital mechanics or space travel, so we all had to teach ourselves. But we picked it up pretty fast. Later, I was chosen as a flight director and I worked in that role for the Apollo missions, including the landings on the moon. After Apollo, I went on to do other things for NASA all over the country. But I came back to the Johnson Space Center in 1982 as the Director and in 1986, I took early retirement and became a technical advisor for film projects, starting with Apollo 13.
You were contacted to be a technical advisor for the film Apollo 13 because of your role in the Apollo 13 mission.
Yes, I was a flight director for Apollo 13. In fact, my team was going to do the landing on the moon. But that was scrapped because of the oxygen tank explosion. I was part of the team that got them back. Our focus became entirely different than landing, it became survival. Fortunately, that one worked out just fine.
For Apollo 13, did you give your background of the story and what was happening on your team, and then also help with technical advising?
It was more the latter. It was mostly technical advising to make sure it stayed real. The director, Ron Howard, said, “I want you at my hip all the time and if you see something that doesn’t look right, let me know.” He said, “It’s not a documentary, so I need some dramatic license. But I want the technical aspects to be accurate.” Indeed they were; they were very accurate. He stuck close to the reality and of course, film has proven it – I think it’s going to be a legend in film for a long, long time. I think that’s partly because he did keep it very authentic.
You’ve also been a technical advisor for Contact and Deep Impact – two films that are often cited for accurate portrayals of science. Did the science advising have anything to do with that?
Actually, it was kind of interesting. Of course, Apollo 13 was fact and historical. I had been a part of it, so that was very real to me and I could adjust quickly to it. Contact, of course, even written by a renowned scientist, was fiction. I had to use part of my brain that I never used, my creative side, to bridge the gap between what had been Apollo 13 – very real and factual – and Contact, which was very deep thinking, a deep story, but again what the director was looking for was ‘Let’s not do anything that makes us look silly. Let’s make it look like this could happen.’ That’s what his interest was in getting me to work on the film because there were a lot of control tower scenes in Contact, there was contact between mission control and Jodie as the lead character. One of the things I learned on Apollo 13, which really came into play on Contact, was that with technical advising, when you get into technical terms and subjects, you end up modifying a lot of the script to make it real-sounding. In Deep Impact it was very similar – totally fiction and really kind of a different story – and I had to disturb the creative side of the brain and think about just trying to make sure it was plausible. And again, I was cast in Contact, when I got in front of the camera I was in mission control, which I had done in real life and then when I got in front of the camera in Deep Impact, I was also in mission control. So I think I’ve been typecast and I think I’ll forever be a “mission control center guy.” But that’s okay; it’s where I really did my thing.
The most recent project you’ve consulted on is Apollo 18. What was the process of being connected to the project?
Yes. Rick called me and 24 hours later, I heard from [Apollo 18 producer] Michelle Wolkoff. It was a very smooth process.
When did you come along in the process? Did they already have a script? Were they working on a script?
They had just started pre-production. Starting from the beginning, [Wolkoff] and I discussed a little bit about the film. She said if I was interested, she’d get me a copy of the script, which she did. It was maybe the first cut, or second cut, of the script at that point. And long story short, after awhile we agreed to a deal.
What are your thoughts on The Exchange? Has technical advising it been beneficial to you?
These experiences have been good. For me, it’s good from two angles. One is it makes me have to recall a lot of what we did, and in many cases, why we did it that way and how we did it. It’s been a reawakening for me of what went on in those years, particularly Apollo 18. Apollo 13 was some number of years ago but Apollo 18 recently really made me delve back into Apollo, which is fun for me to do. I don’t live all the time in that world.
I am also fascinated by the movie-making industry. I recall on Apollo 13 the actors wanted to know about the real mission and I wanted to know about how the movie was being made. It was an interesting exchange between us. I was constantly asking questions of the assistant director, or directors, or one of the actors. “Why did you do that this way? What is that for?” They would explain it to me, and then they would want to immediately turn it around and say, “What was it like to be in mission control on Apollo 13?” So, we both had our own interests and it was an interesting play back and forth. Even watching the making of Apollo 18, I am fascinated with the creativity and what people can do to make an image and make it work. And do things simply that, if you were just sitting watching a movie and say “That must’ve been tough to do,” like violent shaking – someone’s banging on the side of a camera with their hand! You can really make some interesting images with some very simple, creative tricks. And of course, the computer-generated graphics with the green screen – it’s just amazing to me how they can do that. So, it’s a really, really interesting industry to try to understand, particularly for someone technically-oriented. It’s just fun.
Earlier you talked about how you had to dive into that creative side of your brain. Do you think that’s a benefit to the scientists and engineers who do these consults?
Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, I’m sure some [scientists and engineers] would be driven nuts, trying to live in the land of make believe. Because we’ve been trained that everything has an answer and is exact. So, when you’ve spent a career, most of your life, in that kind of environment, it is hard to make that shift to “Well, let’s make-believe now. Take all your knowledge that is scientific and exact, and turn it into something that is make-believe.” I know some people won’t be able to do it at all.
I know some people will see [Apollo 18] and think, “Oh my gosh, why’d Gerry get involved in that?” And my answer to them is “Get over it.” It’s fiction. It’s make-believe. It’s the movie business, guys.
I have to admit on Apollo 13 it was very technically challenging. We were trying to do it exactly right. But Ron [Howard] had to take some dramatic license and create some things that didn’t happen. But he had to tell the story and he only had a couple hours to do it. He had to consolidate characters. He had to make events happen. The opening party where the crewmen were all over to watch Apollo 11, that didn’t happen, but it gave Ron a chance to introduce a lot of characters very rapidly at the beginning of the movie. It was a good way to do it. So, make-believe a little bit on that – but it didn’t have anything to do with the technical content that he wanted to be accurate. It’s a mix of the creative and the exact, the scientific. For me, it’s fun.
Would you recommend the Science & Entertainment Exchange to other scientists and engineers?
Oh, definitely. I never knew The Exchange existed and I think it’s a great thing. The other [projects] came through word-of-mouth, but [Apollo 18] came through this process that I think it’s excellent. I hope it keeps going.