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Ground Control to Major Tom

Behind the scenes of ''Apollo 13'' -- Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris experience NASA-like conditions

It looks like a shark with wings. Long and thin, with a flattened shovel of a snout, the plane rolls across the tarmac at Ellington Field and stops just a few yards away from Tom Hanks. Hanks seems ready to hop in. For one thing, he's wearing an astronaut's white jumpsuit. He's got a patch of Old Glory on his left shoulder and an inch of plastic tube sprouting next to his shirt pocket. Sure, the man who played Forrest Gump has come to this airfield south of Houston to shoot scenes for Apollo 13, but he fits in so well with the vibe of the place that the NASA men ushering the ER-2 along the tarmac don't treat him like one of the most celebrated movie stars in the world. They just treat him like a runway regular, with straight talk and firm boot-camp handshakes.

Frankly, it's Hanks who's starstruck. See, there's...that plane! As the jet hums to a halt on the runway, the actor stares with a sort of quiet rapture. ''That's it,'' he says. ''That's a bona fide U-2.''

''Yep,'' replies one of the NASA men. (Actually, the ER-2 is an update of the famed U-2.) ''It gives a roar like a rocket when it takes off.''

''It'll be taking off today?'' This is too much. Let the rest of the world think of U2 as an Irish rock band; Tom Hanks gets one glimpse of this version of the U-2 — a piece of vintage aero-machinery first unveiled in 1955 for high-altitude spying on the Russkies — and he's beamed back to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and a Cold War youth bewitched by visions of spy planes and spaceships.

Which is how it should be. With Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton in the cockpit, Apollo 13, opening June 30, is the true story of three astronauts — Comdr. Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise — whose space capsule suffered an explosion en route to the moon in 1970, crippling the vessel and leaving the crew gasping for air, water, and hope 205,000 miles above the globe. Their mission: to make it back alive. Director Ron Howard calls it ''the ultimate stress test,'' but by now, a couple of generations have let the white-knuckle odyssey of Apollo 13 fade from memory.

Not Hanks. ''I talked to my crack staff of show business experts long ago,'' recalls the actor, sly as ever, ''and I said, 'Man, we've got to find somebody to write Apollo 13. It's an incredible saga.''' As it turns out, Hanks got his wish: Lovell and science writer Jeffrey Kluger penned Lost Moon, an account of the botched moon shot, and the rights landed with an old friend of Hanks' — Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment. Says the actor, ''I got a call saying, 'You won't believe what I just read! Here's Apollo 13.'''

Since then, Hanks has been going at the movie with the ardor of a boy reeling from his first crush. ''Tom,'' cracks Paxton, ''is gonna build a lunar module in his backyard.''

''He just does stuff that no one else wants to do,'' says producer Brian Grazer with a bemused sigh. At one point Hanks insisted on taking Grazer and Howard down to Florida, where he prodded them out of bed before dawn to watch one of the most mundane rituals of the American space program: a group of astronauts walking across a patch of pavement to hop in a van. ''I said, 'I don't want to do that,''' Grazer says. ''He said, 'No. We have to do that.''' So they did. ''Sat there for a bunch of hours,'' Grazer recalls. ''Ate in the NASA cafeteria, which was awful. But Hanks loved it. He loves everything.''

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