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Houston, we have a tax filing deadline problem

"If anyone from the, uh, from the IRS is watching, I…forgot to file my, my, my 1040 return. Um, I meant to do it today, but…."

That tax oversight admission was made on April 11, 1970, by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut and Apollo 13 command module pilot John "Jack" Swigert.

Bill Paxton Tom Hanks Kevin Bacon Apollo 13 Universal Pictures IMDB
Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell and Kevin Lovell as Jack Swigert in a pivotal scene from the 1995 Universal Pictures film "Apollo 13." (Image courtesy IMBD.com)

By now, everyone knows, either because they're fans of NASA (like me!) or the popular Ron Howard/Tom Hanks movie (me, too!) about that ill-fated space flight, that an unfiled federal tax return was the least of the crew's problems.

But for one brief moment before Swigert and his crewmates Jim Lovell and Fred Haise struggled to return safely to Earth after a potentially deadly hydrogen tank accident, a Form 1040 that was due in just a few days was Swigert's biggest problem.

Preflight filing oversight: The usually calm astronaut reportedly was in a mild panic during his second day in space when he realized he hadn't filed his taxes before launch. Of course, he hadn't been expecting to be on Apollo 13, which was supposed to be the United States' third manned moon landing.

Instead, Swigert was the mission's backup command module pilot. He replaced original crew member Ken Mattingly just 48 hours before the launch after Mattingly was unwittingly exposed to the rubella. Since Mattingly had no immunity to the measles, NASA doctors yanked him from the mission.

"How do I apply for an extension?" Swigert asked on April 12 from 200,000 miles above the planet. Mission control erupted in laughter.

"Things kinda happened real fast down there and I need an extension. I'm really serious!" Swigert insisted. "Would you turn it in?" he asked Mission Control in Houston.

Flight Director Glynn Lunney calmed Swigert by explaining that American citizens out of the country get a 60-day extension on filing. "I assume this applies," Lunney deadpanned.

Added tax time for special situations: Lunney apparently was talking about a tax provision that allows taxpayers who are out of the country to request a discretionary two-month additional extension of time to file their returns.

This extension, however, is tacked onto the regular six-month extension granted when people file Form 4868 to get a filing extension. That would give such filers as late as Dec. 15 to get their returns into the IRS.

And there is a later filing deadline of June 15 for U.S. taxpayers who reside abroad. In addition to giving those foreign-based eligible taxpayers more time, it also applies to members of the military or naval service on duty outside the United States and Puerto Rico.

Since Swigert's official tax residence wasn't in space, or even on the moon if the mission had gone as planned, he technically wouldn't have qualified for the later tax filing deadline as a taxpayer abroad.

And while he had been in the Air Force, his last year of service (as an Air National Guard member) was in 1965, so he wouldn't have qualified for that extension either.

But, hey, I appreciate Lunney and the NASA ground crew doing whatever it took to put Swigert's mind at ease about his taxes and get him to focus on the mission at hand. And I'm especially impressed with Lunney's quick tax response.

Houston, we have a tax problem: Of course, Swigert, Lovell and Haise soon had to deal with literal life-and-death matters that put unfiled taxes in perspective.

Two days after liftoff, on the April 13 that fell 48 years ago today, ground controllers received a low-pressure warning signal on a hydrogen tank in orbiting portion of the spacecraft, the Odyssey.

An attempt at a routine fix was anything but routine. Oxygen pressure fell in the module and power disappeared. That's when Swigert uttered the famous, "Houston, we've had a problem" message.

Yes, those were Swigert's words, not Lovell's. The movie version took dramatic license, revising the phrase to "Houston, we have a problem" and giving it to Tom Hanks, who played the mission commander in "Apollo 13."

Thankfully, the trio proved they had the right stuff and brought the module back to Earth safely on April 17.

Trailer for the movie "The Right Stuff," the story of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and their macho approach to the space program.

And, although it's not documented in NASA records, I presume Swigert, who passed away on Dec. 27, 1982, filed his taxes without further incident.

Extension to file procedure: If you, a regular taxpayer here on terra firma who hasn't yet filed your 2017 tax return and know you won't get the job done by the April 17 filing deadline (this year) next Tuesday, it's time to do what Swigert didn't before his launch in 1970.

File for an extension by submitting Form 4868 by the Tax Day deadline.

You have a variety of ways to do this. You can:

  • download, complete the form and then snail mail it. Just make sure you get to a U.S. Post Office in time to have it postmarked April 17,
  • fill out Form 4868 as a fillable form via the IRS' Free File page and then submit it electronically,
  • e-file the extension request, either by using tax software that you bought or use via Free File,
  • have your tax pro file the extension electronically, or
  • use an electronic payment option to pay any tax you owe.

Note that final option, specifically the "pay any tax you owe" phrase.

An extension to file — repeat with me for the 800th gazillion time — is just that. An extension to file your forms.

You still must pay any due tax with that extension request. But that's still a better choice for many of the almost 10 million taxpayers who every year get an added six months to file rather than frantically filling out a tax return and perhaps making hurried and costly mistakes.

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