1st moon trip recalled in inspiring documentary

Posted: September 21, 2007

Watching the superb space-race documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" makes you wonder if civilization may have peaked in 1969.

Surely those alive at the time would have thought otherwise. The Cold War was at its hottest, our country was riven by war and the residue of assassination, and the struggle for civil rights had turned violent. But these were, to borrow a phrase from one of the astronauts in the film, "terrestrial squabbles." While the '60s raged, a bunch of guys in crew cuts sequestered themselves from the turmoil and devoted their lives and energies to flying to the moon.

"In the Shadow of the Moon," featuring interviews with 10 of the 24 Apollo program astronauts, is their inspiring story.

Director David Sington uses archival footage (rich film rather than bleached video) sparingly but brilliantly - there is a snippet from the JFK memorials I've never seen before, a flag at half-mast, photographed from low angle with a jet trail between the flag and oblivion.

It beautifully memorializes the president who called his country to the challenge of manned space flight and lunar exploration, and who held it out to the rest of the world as a galvanizing goal.

Kennedy saw America as the nation best qualified to marshal science and technology for the benefit of the world. He believed a U.S. mission to the moon would demonstrate this: "What mankind must undertake," he said, "free men will fully share."

Never mind that the technology did not actually exist. Or that many inside NASA believed that it could not be achieved in a decade, or ever. Our Atlas booster rockets were famous for blowing up, and even the "Right Stuff" guys in the exclusive astronaut club note wryly that the space program seemed like a "quick way to a short career."

But egged on by the Russians' success, by our love of tinkering and innovation and the technological double-dare, and by our romance with space (even our cars looked like rockets), the Apollo missions raced forward.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" has some of the burnished glow of feel-good nostalgia - a can-do retrospective for a can't-do age - but it also runs deeper than that. Certainly it doesn't sidestep mistakes by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, like the haste and faulty wiring that killed three astronauts on a launchpad in 1967, or the near-disaster of Apollo 13.

Of course, we did reach the moon and so does the documentary, in fairly short order. And it's when the astronauts encounter the desolation of the moon and the infinity of space that poetry emerges, often with stunning eloquence. One man talks of the strangeness of being one of two beings alive in an entire world. Another talks of feeling his own molecules as suddenly inseparable from the ship, the stars, the violent flux of the universe (don't worry, it makes sense in the film).

You understand, then, the humility of Neil Armstrong's description of that first footfall, July 21, 1969, as "one small step for man."

In these solipsistic times, when billionaires pay for space tourism and an unfortunate "adventurer" like Steve Fossett can claim to be the first man to fly solo around the earth nearly 50 years after Yuri Gagarin actually did it, one can easily imagine an astronaut saying "one small step for 'me.' "

But these men saw themselves as the vanguard of a species, not a country, and were received as such when they returned. In ticker-tape parades throughout the world, multinational crowds reveled in what "we" were able to accomplish.

It didn't last, of course. Terrestrial squabbles reset the agenda. Science and technology lost their luster as guarantors of a better future, and joint government/corporate programs (dig those Rockwell jumpsuits) acquired a sinister reputation.

The seeds of fragmentation and doubt can be seen in the documentary: Jim Lovell notes that the earth looks fragile from space, and laments its pollution.

Modern eyes look back and wonder how much carbon was burned. Large portions of the world's population reject the modern and fancy a retreat to the 16th century. Weirdos deny that we reached the moon at all (prompting the documentary's hilarious postscript). And children complacently play with laptops containing more random access memory than probably was used in all Apollo missions put together.

Astronaut Charlie Duke puts it this way:

"My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers. He could barely believe I went to the moon. But my son Tom was 5, and he didn't think it was any big deal."

Well, it was, young fella, it was.

Produced by Duncan Copp, directed by David Sington, music by Philip Sheppard, distributed by ThinkFilm.

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