I watched two movies about the Apollo Space Program this weekend.
The experience is very complex for me, emotionally. The experience of writing this post is an attempt to define what it means.
I had read recently about a film that was making its way through festivals and Friday I tried to figure out what it was called. But I might be wrong about its provenance. And while I couldn’t remember a title or find what I thought I was looking for, I did find some documentaries available online which seemed to cover similar ground.
The first documentary is called For All Mankind. It was released in 1989, several years after the Challenger disaster.
It was about all of the lunar missions, though the footage and narration was respective to the individual missions.
I found myself full of the same wonder today as I have always had.
In my lifetime, there has always been a space program. For a while, while I was younger, I believed there would be an opportunity for me to at least get to orbit. After all, at Christmastime in my first year of life, we orbited the moon. And not long after that, mission after mission got us to the surface of the moon itself.
When the Shuttle program was announced, I felt it was a natural progression. Of course we were going to have space planes. Of course we were going to find ways to make space travel easier and less expensive.
I remember well in my senior year of high school when Challenger failed. I felt disbelief and horror. My Chemistry teacher had submitted ideas for experiments to be carried aloft on that flight. One of my classmates figured out early on that an easy way to derail his lectures was to ask about the space program and his chances. I loved it. My chemistry teacher did, too.
I checked out books from the school library full of illustrations and speculations about what space craft might look like. What would space stations be used for? Would we build colonies in space? Could we survive on other planets?
It seemed, once, like there might have been an imperative. So many books and TV series and movies that I consumed pointed up to the sky and out of the solar system. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Six-Million Dollar Man, Star Trek, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Cosmos, Alien, Cosmos, even Blade Runner, all showed me this was not only possible but normal.
And so, the footage re-assembled in For All Mankind returned the feeling of wonder and the sense of the imperative to me. And I have missed that. As much as the movie is about the missions, it also is a fun window into a brief time and place.
The second film I found is In the Shadow of the Moon. This is a much different film. While it is about the same events in the Apollo missions, the context and the subject is the recollection of the experience by many of the surviving astronauts. How they felt about their roles and what they remembered about their thoughts as events transpired.
I learned that the astronauts themselves were involved in the design of the craft they flew. I learned that astronauts were on the ground working as part of mission control as the missions were in progress.
And I learned the astronauts were taken by the perception of people around the world that we all were a part of the missions, that the success of the missions belongs to all of humanity. They have been greeted for the rest of their lives not with “You did it!” but rather with “We did it!”
I was profoundly struck by the final few minutes when clearly the astronauts were asked how they were affected, and how their perspective has changed. I found it deeply moving and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone considering watching it.
I’d definitely re-watch either film. For me it was very bittersweet. I hope someday we can stop poking at each other for sport. I hope someday we can take stock of the amazing gifts we have and consider the what we can leave behind for those generations we will never know.
The movie I had read about is called Apollo 11. It’s going to be released first in IMAX, then in traditional theatres shortly thereafter.