50 Years Ago, Man Walked on Moon
Two Americans walked on the moon July 20, 1969. It was not the product of an internet start-up. No one Instagrammed the launch, and hashtags were not used to power the Saturn V rocket. Silicon Valley was just getting off the ground and mainly concerned with transistors. Well before all the “Making the world a better place” and “Do no evil” sideshows.
The Apollo 11 moon landing made the planet a better place by including the world’s population. It connected 14% of the earth’s population; all spellbound, in awe and looking up at the vastness of the universe. Not down, tapping endlessly on glass. For those nine days, time was suspended, and it only resumed once the crew had returned safely to earth.
Todd Douglas Miller’s latest film Apollo 11, compresses this historic mission into a 93 minute visual and audio experience that should not be missed. His work transported me back to that summer. The day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, our family was crowded around a small black and white television inside my uncle’s lake house cabin in Michigan. The film’s simplicity is what gives it such power. Mr. Miller fits together this impressive and what will prove to be durable work from 177 reels of 65-millimeter film NASA had given to the National Archives for safe keeping. Most of the footage were still only color negatives, never processed. There is no written dialogue in this script. The voices we hear are from news broadcasts and 11,000 hours of digitized recordings, meticulously curated by Ben Feist, a NASA researcher. Matt Morton provides the original score, that pounds out an adrenaline heartbeat when the Saturn V engines ignite and then into a spiritual refrain as the Eagle settles in on the Sea of Tranquility.
The space program was accelerated out of fear the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union with the launch of Sputnik. Once the U.S. got going there was no stopping us from claiming moon front real estate. President Kennedy’s visionary proclamation sealed the deal.
It wasn’t one rocket launch in a nice tidy package as shown in the film. The moon landing was a carefully designed process that began with the Mercury program, was continued by Gemini, and finally culminated with Apollo 11. Once the uncrewed Apollo missions were complete it was only two and a half years from Apollo 1, which tragically took the lives of astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee in a pre-launch fire, to the moon mission of Neil Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. and Michael Collins. Astonishing that so much could happen so quickly. Apollo was a miracle orchestration of science, technology and human courage driven by the country’s character, and an authentic citizen collectiveness that was not perfect then, but now seems to have gone completely missing.
The picture opens with shots of the monstrous crawling machine slowly transporting the Saturn V rocket to launchpad 39A. The juxtaposition of the mechanical crawler carrying a space rocket with over two million computer systems gives us not only the sense of scale, but how far man had come.
There is helicopter footage of people jamming hotels, shopping center parking lots near Cape Kennedy and pitching tents by the water so they could bear witness to the event. America was not all happy and together. The Vietnam War was tearing at the fabric of the country, as was the civil rights struggle. Perhaps Apollo 11 played a significant role in keeping things from disintegrating further.
Damien Chazelle’s excellent film First Man released in 2018 focused primarily on Neil Armstrong and the impact the space program had on the astronauts and their families. It was underrated in my opinion. Taken together, First Man and Apollo 11 provide us with a fuller understanding of what was sacrificed as well as achieved.
The pre-flight scene when the astronauts are suiting up and then making their way to the launch pad gives us a sense of duty everyone was feeling, along with the massive burden. Doing one’s job was never more important than here. You can see in the astronaut’s faces they were fully aware of the seriousness of what they were about to embark on.
Mr. Miller doesn’t tinker with the footage. Instead he smartly lets the story tell itself by focusing on the key chapters of the mission. Superimposing data points like the velocity of the spacecraft, or how much fuel is left in the Lunar Module or the heart rates of the astronauts while descending are his dramatic contributions that remind us this was precise, dangerous and at times violent work.
The care and foresight NASA had to film and preserve that nine days is what made this documentary possible. Except for the clothes and haircuts, the look of the film doesn’t seem 50 years old. The filmmakers must have known immediately what they had when they got their first glimpse of the footage. To their credit, they continued the exactness, respect and creativity shown by all those who took part in the mission.
It might have been beneficial we did not see the footage immediately. We were all in shock for a while and probably would not have appreciated it’s importance. To experience it (re-experience in my case) 50 years later was moving. After seeing what we’ve done with data, digital devices and the internet of things, I am more confident than ever the moon landing achievement eclipses what Silicon Valley has wrought by light years.
Late in the film we see astronaut James Lovell, who was the back-up commander for Apollo 11. He appears several times watching intently at the screens in mission control. Probably reflecting on his Apollo 8 mission that was the first to enter lunar orbit, but unaware he would swap places with the Apollo 14 crew to lead the Apollo 13 mission. “Houston we have a problem.” I met Mr. Lovell several times at his restaurant in Lake Forest, IL. He was always willing to sit and chat. Amazing man.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, the NASA footage did not show any people of color. Thanks to the film Hidden Figures, we know that women, especially African American women, played a significant role in the math behind the rocket science. Katherine Johnson along with many other or her contemporaries, were the “human computers” that propelled the space program. I did see one woman in the footage of Apollo 11. A young white woman, but hoped there would be a wider representation.
SpaceX has rekindled the romance for space travel with their Falcon Heavy rockets and Occupy Mars mantras. Their recent successful docking mission with the International Space Station offers hope. All their flights to date have been unmanned.
Apollo 11 is a valuable history lesson. It reminds us what can happen when a country comes together to tackle something very large. Highly recommended, especially for my millennial readers.
Visit the official Apollo 11 movie web site.
Although not part of the film, a lunar reconnaissance orbiter camera captured a startling image of the Apollo 11 landing site years later. All of what the Apollo 11 crew left, including footprints, still remain. The astronauts ventured only a few city blocks away from their landing module.