Synopsis: Three humans go to the moon!
Watching the documentary Apollo 11, which chronicles the July 1969 American journey to the moon and back, would’ve been too intense for me if I hadn’t known ahead of time that the mission would be a success. Knowing that the astronauts survived, I could relax a bit and focus on my overarching interests: moon food and Space Madness.
In spite of the known outcome, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller creates tension, starting with the launch from Cape Kennedy in Florida wherein hundreds of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel explode to blast Saturn V spaceward. With three humans riding along!
Why in God’s name would anyone want to travel more than 240,000 miles through airless, lifeless space to an airless, lifeless rock, courting death all the way?! I do not know. Add to that the terror of being crammed into a metal pod with a couple of colleagues not of your choosing for a week with the knowledge that if you make it home you will then have to spend a few weeks quarantined with said colleagues in a trailer. Furthermore, you will be subjected to President Nixon, infamous paranoid misanthrope, talking at you at the trailer window. Madness! Nonetheless, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did sign up for this.
Apollo 11 utilizes film gleaned from hundreds of reels from NASA and the National Archives. Miller had the film digitized and the audio restored. The clarity of the scenes from Kennedy Space Center in Florida are astounding. The rocket and attendant rigging are gargantuan. We see the three astronauts stride confidently to the launch pad after having said their goodbyes (perhaps forever!) to family. The tech crews make last minute adjustments — no pressure there!
Meanwhile hordes of people set-up camp at Cocoa Beach and other outlying areas to observe the launch. Seeing as it was 1969, I expected to see plenty of hippies grooving around — long-haired flower children strumming guitars and crafting flower necklaces. But no, they must have been preparing for Woodstock. Because instead there are lots of families and older middle class looking white people wearing middle America clothes. They snack and rest in beach chairs in what appears to be sweltering heat, given the copious sweating. Never approach me, Earthlings! warns the blinding sun.
The crowd’s festive mood contrasts with scenes of sober staff at launch operations in Florida and mission control in Houston, Texas; row after row of men split into teams, monitoring every phase of the moon trip. All of the uber nerds shown act like jettisoning tough guy nerds into Space is a rational act. They speak in level tones and comport themselves in a calm manner. I would be freaking out just watching from Cocoa Beach.
Saturn V launches on July 16 in a spectacular burst, properly awing everyone. The astronauts will not land on the moon, in the Sea of Tranquility, until July 20th, so they had plenty of time to kill. Due to the danger of the flight, I floated into a sympathetic nervous mania and anticipated a carnival-like atmosphere onboard. I expected Neil, Buzz & Mike C. to be reveling in their release from gravity, turning midair somersaults and pretending to swim. That’s what I would do. I also looked forward to watching them drink Tang (a powdery citrus drink– sort of a synthetic orange juice), eat Space ice cream and snack on Pringles potato chips. But then I remembered a Simpsons episode where a space bound Homer eats chips and the crumbs float around and mess up the controls. So no chips. Or Tang or ice cream. Instead they consume boring things like bacon cubes coated with crumb-detaining gelatin. In a surreal moment Buzz Aldrin offers himself Holy Communion and consecrated wine. A sign of Space Madness? Buzz, there are no Sundays in Space.
I figured the astronauts would be biding their time resting and looking out the window at the home planet. But no, they seemed preoccupied fiddling with controls. Fortunately, the movie gifts us with some stunning shots of our beloved Earth which –spoiler alert– humans have continued despoiling in the subsequent fifty years.
The men seem calm gazing out at the Earth. Nothing abnormal about that at first. But after about five minutes, wouldn’t most earthlings have an existential crisis? (I shudder to think of the poor chimps and dogs subjected to space flight.) The government shrinks surely suspected the danger of Space Madness. In fact, pundits theorized that the effects of microgravity, deep space radiation, claustrophobia and isolation could undo a person’s mind. And the astronauts had to get by without good old American crutches like Coca Cola and cigarettes. However, they did have coffee. Perhaps that prevented Space Madness.
While everyone is familiar with Armstrong’s first steps and “That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind” remark, the docu fills in the details preceding the historic moment. It takes foreverrrr for Neil A. to descend the ladder from the Eagle module to the surface. I guess the clunky-cool moonboots were heavy and slippery. No complaints because he’s a hero and I know that us mere mortals would probably misstep and tumble onto the moon ground. OOf –what the hell! And then either say: This place is %$&^* amazing! or All this way for this &%^*!
Watching Apollo 11, I thought of all the things that could’ve gone wrong and thankfully didn’t because of human intelligence and vigilance. The movie superbly puts you back into the days of July 1969 with all its suspense and excitement. And no Space Madness.
PS Did you know that while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking around on the moon, Michael Collins was flying around the moon? For having missed out on a moonwalk, he should’ve been first out of the capsule that landed in the Pacific Ocean on their July 24 return.
PPS Not surprisingly given the times, it looks like just about all of the staff are white men. But the filmmaker did include footage of a black man working in the Space Analysis room. And if you saw Hidden Figures, you might be interested in the bio of JoAnn Morgan, the first woman engineer at NASA who was an instrumentation controller at the launch.
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