Feats of Apollo astronauts come alive in documentary

[27 September 2007]

By Dixie Reid

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

They were young once, and brave. They were the Apollo astronauts, men who rode fiery rocket ships to the moon and back a lifetime ago.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is their story in their own words, the clear memories of 10 Americans now in their 70s who went beyond their wildest dreams, and ours.

Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott and John Young—but not Neil Armstrong, the most famous of them—recall those storied times in the documentary.

Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon, on July 20, 1969. As the world watched on television nearly a quarter-million miles away, he stepped out of the lunar module Eagle and onto the moon’s surface.

“That’s one small step for man,” he said, “one giant leap for mankind.”

“Obviously, we did ask him for an interview,” says director David Sington on the phone from New York City, where he attended the film’s premiere. “He explained why he doesn’t do them. He sees himself as merely a representative of Apollo and of America and, ultimately, of all of us. He doesn’t say, `That’s one small step for me,’ but for a `man.’ That’s the most important thing, that a man did this, a human being did this. He said to me in an e-mail: `I don’t think my personal feelings are relevant.’

“And I quite like the fact that he’s the only astronaut who remains young. So it’s like he’s King Arthur, a semi-mythical figure.”

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, now 75, believes Armstrong’s reticence helps to preserve the historical significance and mythic status of that “small step” onto the Sea of Tranquility 38 years ago.

Between 1969 and 1972, the United States launched nine manned moon missions, and a dozen astronauts walked on the lunar surface. The fourth to do so was Bean, a Texas-born Navy test pilot who set the Apollo 12 lunar module, Intrepid, onto the moon’s Ocean of Storms on Nov. 19, 1969.

Apollo 12 would be overshadowed by NASA’s two most storied missions: Armstrong’s Apollo 11 and the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 in April 1970, when an electrical fault and resulting explosion crippled the Apollo 13’s command module on its way to the moon. (Ron Howard, who “presents” Sington’s documentary, also directed the 1995 movie “Apollo 13,” which starred Tom Hanks.)

Bean, also in New York for the premiere of “In the Shadow of the Moon,” doesn’t mind if his mission has been overlooked.

“I felt completely lucky,” he says. “Otherwise, history would have never recorded the name Alan Bean, which is OK, but just being a part of Apollo and a part of this great human endeavor, worthy endeavor, was to accomplish an impossible dream. I’ve said to myself many times, I’m not going to complain if I catch cancer or something like that, because I’ve had enough luck to last the rest of my life.”

He still hasn’t lived down the infamous camera incident, though.

He and Pete Conrad, Apollo 12’s commander, were charged by NASA with making a precision landing on the moon, collecting lunar samples and checking on Surveyor 3, which set down there in 1967.

Bean also was the photographer, of sorts, in charge of the Westinghouse Lunar TV camera. He was to mount it on a tripod and record his and Conrad’s explorations of the moon’s surface.

“I pointed the camera at the sun,” Bean says. “I should have known, but I didn’t know, that you couldn’t point TV cameras at the sun. Nobody on Earth said, `Hey, you point it at the sun and it’s broken forever.’”

The sun’s rays overloaded the vidicon tube and rendered it useless, but Bean and Conrad thought the problem was with the camera’s color wheel, so they banged on the camera casing with a hammer. That hammer was one of the things Bean brought back from the moon.

“It was the first color camera to be on the moon,” he says, “but we didn’t have a color camera to practice with. We practiced with a wooden block, and I’m sure I pointed that wooden block at the sun all the time. It didn’t hurt the wooden block, but it sure did hurt the real one.”

Luckily, hundreds of hours of Apollo film footage has survived. Sington is among the first filmmakers to use never-before-seen NASA footage shot in space as well as inside Mission Control. The original shots have been digitally remastered and transferred to high-definition video and are sparkling clear.

Sington’s favorite footage came from a 16mm camera built into the Saturn V rocket, intended for the use of NASA’s engineers.

“It’s this extraordinary shot of the third stage firing, and you see the rocket going away and see the way the bit that’s left behind starts to fall down toward the Earth,” Sington says. “It’s extraordinarily beautiful and represents this amazing moment when human begins are about to leave the Earth for the first time, and it also is the most amazing technological achievement to actually get that film back from space.

“I think the shot we used to represent leaving Earth, against the moon, is probably the best shot in cinema history. It would get my vote for greatest moving picture shot of all time.”

Sington knew the time was right to make this documentary, not only because of the remastered footage but because the astronauts are getting up in years. Of the 10 interviewed for “In the Shadow of the Moon,” Lovell is the oldest at 79 and Duke, who turns 72 on Oct. 3, is the youngest.

Already, the Apollo brotherhood has lost Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, along with Conrad, Jack Swigert, Stuart Roosa, Jim Irwin, Ron Evans and the crew of Apollo 1 (Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom, who died on the launch pad in 1967, when fire broke out in their spacecraft during a simulated countdown).

Each of the 10 in the documentary, their faces lined and hair faded to gray or white, recall their Apollo days with humor, passion and a bit of bravado.

“I think that it’s such a vivid experience, you don’t forget it and you can remember every minute of it,” Sington says. “At the time, they knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so they were at their most intensely alive for every moment of it, and when they take themselves back—this is what we found in the interviews—they can take themselves back to that moment, and you can almost see them going back. They’re looking around as they looked around at the time. When they do that, they become so vividly alive. It’s really a delight to watch.”

Sington, who grew up in England and remembers the Apollo missions from his childhood, hopes the documentary will find an audience with people who were alive during America’s fevered race to the moon against the Soviet Union and with others who grew up on fictional space movies like “Star Wars.”

He watched “In the Shadow of the Moon” at a Florida film festival with Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, and Schmitt’s son, Adam, who is in his early 20s.

“Adam said to me afterward that he grew up knowing his father walked on the moon, but he never really realized what that meant. He was very emotional.”



Timeline of the U.S. space program, leading up to and following Apollo 11’s historic 1969 moon landing.

April 9, 1959—NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) selects its first astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.

April 12, 1961—Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the first human to orbit Earth.

May 5, 1961—Alan Shepard is the first American in space. His suborbital flight lasts 15 minutes.

May 1961—President Kennedy challenges the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

September 1962—NASA’s second astronaut group includes Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and John Young.

October 1963—The third group includes Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Michael Collins and Dave Scott.

Nov. 22, 1963—President Kennedy is assassinated.

June 1965—The fourth group of astronauts includes Harrison Schmitt.

April 1966—Charlie Duke and Edgar Mitchell are in the fifth astronaut group.

Jan. 27, 1967—Apollo 1 crew members Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom are killed by a fire in their spacecraft during a simulated countdown on the launch pad.

November 1967-October 1968—NASA launches several Saturn V rockets, culminating with the launch of Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, in October.

Dec. 21-27, 1968—With the launch of Apollo 8, humans leave Earth’s orbit for the first time. Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Lovell circle but do not land on the moon.

March 1969—Apollo 9 performs the first manned shakedown test of all Apollo lunar hardware in Earth’s orbit, including the first manned flight of the lunar module. Crew members are James McDivitt, Russell Schweickart and Scott.

May 18-26, 1969—Apollo 10 repeats the flight of Apollo 9 but in lunar orbit. The lunar module descends to within 10 miles of the lunar surface. The crew consists of Tom Stafford, Young and Cernan.

July 16-24, 1969—Apollo 11 is the first mission to land on the moon, and Neil Armstrong is the first human to walk on another world, on July 20, 1969. Aldrin, who also walks on the moon, and Collins are his crew mates.

Nov. 14-24, 1969—Apollo 12 executes the first precision lunar landing, near the Surveyor III spacecraft, which had set down on the moon in April 1967. The crew consists of Charles “Pete” Conrad, Dick Gordon and Bean.

April 11-17, 1970—An electrical fault in an oxygen tank causes an explosion that cripples the Apollo 13 command module on its way to the moon. On board are Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert.

Jan. 31-Feb. 9, 1971—The third successful lunar landing touches down in the region of the moon originally designated for Apollo 13. Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Mitchell make up the Apollo 14 crew.

July 26-Aug. 7, 1971—Apollo 15 is the first “extended stay” science mission on the moon. Scott and Jim Irwin are the first to drive on the moon in a lunar rover. Alfred Worden pilots the command module.

April 16-27, 1972—Apollo 16 crew mates Young and Duke are the first to venture beyond the flat, relatively smooth volcanic areas of the moon in a lunar rover. Thomas “Ken” Mattingly is the command module pilot.

Dec. 7-19, 1972—Apollo 17 commander Cernan is the last man to walk on the moon after he and geologist-scientist Schmitt spend three days exploring a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon. Ron Evans pilots the command module.

(Source: NASA)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/feats-of-apollo-astronauts-come-alive-in-documentary/