For 37 years, Jerry Woodfill has been employed by NASA in Houston, Texas, USA. He holds BAEE and BSEE degrees from Rice University which he attended on a basketball scholarship. 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 the first alert of 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.
Upon the re-release of the digitally remastered for IMAX of Apollo 13, Jerry shares with us how this mission changes his life and the lives of many that he has shared his fascinating story of faith with since that time in 1970. He has authored a number of Christian tracts and booklets as an outreach for Christ, mostly dealing with God’s work in the space program: The booklet, WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO APOLLO 13 has been widely distributed throughout the NASA area since 1977 and has affected many lives. Recently, he authored and published a book called: SPACE ACTS which details God’s hand in newsworthy events in space history such as the Apollo One fire, the Challenger Tragedy, and the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Be sure to read our review of Apollo 13
Monday, evening, 9:00 PM, April 13, 1970, I sat at my station in Houston at the Manned Spacecraft Center monitoring the lunar voyage of Apollo 13. As the mission’s warning system engineer, I had my headset in place listening to the air to ground comments of Jim Lovell and crew broadcast from more than 200,000 miles in space.
Suddenly, my television monitor flickered, and I noticed the indication that a master alarm had sounded in the spacecraft. Seconds later, I heard the now famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” Indeed, my alarm system had been the first warning of Apollo 13’s oxygen tank explosion which threatened to end the lives of three men. Though I was not a believer, others launched prayer heavenward so that I saw technical miracles unfold the next four days which convinced me that God was, indeed, real—that He answers prayer, and was responsible for the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew.
The experience set me on a search to find God in a personal way. The catalyst of my search came 18 months later at a meeting of Christian business men. The speaker’s challenge was, “Would you be a man for God, accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Immediately, I bolted forward out of my seat and experienced the wonderful forgiveness and empowerment Jesus Christ promised. I returned to NASA as one “not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,” knowing it was the “power of God unto salvation” for everyone who believed it. That week, I launched the NASA noon time Thursday prayer group with another Christian colleague. Our prayers were answered as many at the space center came to know Christ as Lord and Savior. Months later, several dozen were meeting with us, some who later entered full time ministry of the Gospel.
My role as warning system engineer required an intimate knowledge of spacecraft systems, one of which was the carbon dioxide filtering technique. Because three men now had to survive for four days in the lunar lander, a ship designed for two men to live two days, I was aware that the round CO2 filters in the lander were too few to replace the plentiful supply of square filters in the “mother-ship.”
Because my alarm system kept “ringing” as the cabin CO2 content rose, I was called into the mission manager’s office for consultation. He asked me about the calibration curves for the CO2 sensor. My thought was, “It’s remarkable that I have this data since it was not my responsibility. This can’t be a coincidence. There is someone beyond myself assisting here.” With those curves, we quickly were able to understand the need to make a square peg fit into a round hole, a technique never taught in my engineering courses at Rice University.
The manager called across the room, “Get those guys in the backroom working on this CO2 problem. We need an answer fast.” And the answer did come hours later because someone had put on board a roll of DUCT TAPE!” My thought was, “This is amazing that such a simple thing as duct tape saved the crew from expiring on their own breath.” And, of course, no more sounds of the CO2 alarm came from my system. “Someone was watching over us who can make a square peg fit into a round hole,” was my thought.
Then came that difficulty with navigating. Astronauts use the stars, but the exploded O2 tank obliterated viewing them. Listening to the communications in my headset, I heard the astronauts jury-rig a technique that substituted the Earth’s terminator, the Sun, and the Moon to steer Apollo 13 home. My thought was, “How can such a guidance technique be fashioned so quickly? We have to be getting supernatural help.” Later, I found my neighbor had, as a whim, devised that program, succeeded in depositing it into Mission Control’s computers, and forgotten about it. But God hadn’t. He had it there to save the men of Apollo 13, and it impressed me. Someone must be helping us overcome each obstacle.
“We were always making the right call, even when we didn’t have full knowledge of what the situation was—this was altogether fortuitous–or God ordained. For example, when Gene Kranz and others chose to use the lander’s descent engine to rocket Apollo 13 home instead of the much more powerful mother-ship’s engine, I wondered if that had been the right decision. Using the more powerful rocket would have meant an earlier return should the electrical power proven insufficient. Yet, the lander’s engine was the right choice! Near reentry time, Commander Lovell, on seeing the damage from the explosion exclaimed, “The whole panel is blown out,” meaning that the mother-ship was so severely damaged that using that engine would probably have killed the crew.
These and many more events that week made me aware that God was not only real but He answers prayer. Nevertheless, I could not have known the way to Him. No one told me that way was through a personal relationship with his Son, Jesus Christ. No one quoted me Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life–No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Apollo 13’s rescue revealed the reality of the supernatural. Had a colleague explained the plan of salvation that week, I know I would have accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.
Yes, Robert Bobola, the Project Engineer for the Apollo 13 spacecraft who now often shares his testimony of the rescue as I do…and, also, Astronaut Charles Duke, the 10th man to walk on the Moon, who later came to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior. We all believe that prayer for the entire mission operations team had the impact of ultimately bringing us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Lord.
Nothing in my Christian experience has more greatly enabled me to win others to Christ than the testimonies I share of the miraculous rescue of Apollo 13. Besides those events, I experienced during April of 1970, I have uncovered a score of other testimonies about the rescue which very definitely reveal prayer in Jesus’s name intervening to rescue the crew of Apollo 13. Combined with my personal testimony, I have seen thousands of people acknowledge Christ for the first time as their Lord and Savior. This has been a ministry which began with my salvation in 1972 and was accomplished through hundreds of opportunities to share the story in many different venues: church, professional conventions, media, publishing, and others.
When I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior, it was a very dramatic conversion—dramatic in the sense that I was so transformed that I found even breathing difficult. Others who I have shared the plan of salvation with experience tears, sudden happiness, or simply an assurance that they are forgiven and on their way to heaven with Christ as their Lord. My point here is that one person’s experience is not really superior to another. Each is custom tailored by the Holy Spirit to the needs, personality, character, and background of each of us. In that respect, I believe that evangelical films and “non-Christian” films are simply different strategies employed by the Lord. I think this is a lot like the idea of “one planting, another watering, but God getting the increase.”
I do know though that Apollo 13 won’t work to bring a person to Christ unless there is, somebody like me, who is able to share the testimonies of prayer with one who has seen the movie. It’s much like my experience with the actual Apollo 13 mission. I sensed God was there but didn’t know how to find Him. I needed the one Paul spoke of saying, “How shall they hear unless there be a preacher.”
There is no plan of salvation presented in Apollo 13; however, in reading the Book of Esther in the Old Testament, one knows there is definitely one watching over the Jewish people. The circumstance of the King’s insomnia causes the King to read a dull record book. He finds that he has not rewarded Esther’s uncle for foiling an assassination plot. “What can I do for you the King asks?” Of course, the response is, “Take care of Hamann, the evil doer that plots to have us all killed.” Now, Apollo 13 witnesses like that, “Why was duct tape on board? Why did we always make the correct call? Why? Why? Why?” The answer is, of course, “Because God is there, He answers prayer, and He cares.”
Yes, sometimes a film like Apollo 13 works better to convince a non-believer because it is God’s strategy, but, again, there has to be a witness for Christ to fulfill that strategy. Evangelical films are neat because they usually provide an explanation of the plan of salvation in some form or fashion.
Most evangelical films that are successful, in the sense that they lead to viewers conversions, certainly strive not to overplay the message of salvation in Christ. I know, when I share my testimony, my purpose is to convince listeners from an interesting, truthful perspective of my secular life. I share my story as it evolved through the experience of Apollo 13 and other incidents to the point where there was a decision to be made.
At the onset of my message, I rarely even speak of God, and never use the kinds of terms we are accustomed to among ourselves (born again, saved, etc.). Rather, I speak of my aspirations to be a college basketball player, to contribute to putting a man on the Moon, the hopes, dreams, and desires all of us have. I think evangelical directors and producers try to achieve a similar objective. Some of us have better success than others, just as films have varying results. Then, again, despite my good intentions, at times my testimony falls on its face and fails to win anyone in the audience to the Lord, but that’s a mystery which I’ll hope to uncover when I see Him face-to-face. I know it is a great help in developing humility though.
Some have been bothered by the curse words in the movie. To parents, I suggest viewing a video of the movie and deciding if it’s appropriate for their children, 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 were 50 such instances, but the number has been significantly reduced in the IMAX version, 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. 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. Think about it. So, please cut those characters in the movie a little slack, even when they blurt out an inappropriate word or two.
Unquestionably! “God has chosen the weaker things of the world to confound the wise,” is the way the Bible paraphrases the idea. I’ve studied Obadiah 1:4 where it is said, “Though thou exalt thyself as the Eagle and thou set thy nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down.” It’s interesting that the name of America’s first lunar lander which was “set among the stars’ as the prophets viewed the Moon was named the EAGLE—and with the rescue of Apollo 13, He taught us a lesson. He certainly showed us that He responded to prayer in bringing the crew safely back to Earth. Whatever his purpose, indeed, such simple rescue items showed us that prayer is as important as all the advanced learning in the universe.
There is, still another more graphic illustration of this which concerns the prayers of a class of special education kids, none with an I.Q. over 80. It is a very moving testimony. It came in a letter I received from a teacher a decade after the rescue. I won’t share it here, but it is posted at: www.spaceacts.com/wanda.html
First pray silently that the Lord will make your discussion useful to their ultimate salvation. Then, you might mention having read the account I am sharing here, i.e., some of the specific stories of those “fortuitous” events in the movie. Mention that the movie by virtue of limited time could not share some other life-threatening events which you had read about. These are available as a resource at: www.spaceacts.com/TRACT13.html. In this way, you will be sharing testimonies of answered prayer. Then print out a copy to leave with them if you think it appropriate. You have my permission to print as many as you would like in sharing the testimony of Apollo 13. The account is not preachy, but has a second part if you feel sharing it is appropriate. The second part is how the rescue affected my life. It concludes with a prayer for your friend’s salvation. It’s posted at: www.spaceacts.com/impact.html. Again, print as many copies as you feel might help others.
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.
I now know, as a Christian that the words ‘Failure is not an option’ was once spoken by the Apostle Paul when he said, ‘I can do all things through Him (Christ) which strengtheneth me.’ So that through every adversity, whether God-allowed or Satan-inspired, I can’t ignore His command to, ‘look unto the hills from there cometh (my) help.’ As a believer, I must always, turn to Him. I do not have an option to fail. Like the words of Flight in Apollo 13, I must have resolve. Call it courage, faithfulness, longsuffering, or peace in the midst of the storm. But whatever you call it, I think our Flight, who is far beyond the Moon but yet so close that He dwells within us would say, “Be encouraged: The last page of my book says, You win!”
Not only is the movie inspirational for those who have no faith in Christ. It is a wonderful movie for people of faith because I know that even if I had been the fourth member of the Apollo 13 crew, and God had not intervened, I would be a successful failure because “nothing, not even death, can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”
Thank you so much for your willingness to participate in this interview, Mr. Woodfill. I very much enjoyed reading your testimony and insights into the way God used the Apollo 13 crisis and the “Apollo 13” film for his glory.