On a cold Thursday afternoon in early March, Bob Christman and I drove out to the AMC movie complex in Stony Brook, about one-hour from our homes to see the documentary at the only IMAX presentation on Long Island. Our journey didn’t disappoint.
Apollo 11 is an extraordinary documentary that gives the audience a cinematic opportunity to experience mankind’s greatest achievement in the Twentieth Century, the first manned mission to the moon, as it unfolded.
It stars Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin as heroic, competent and well-trained test pilots and engineers; men who had the “Right Stuff.” Apollo 11 delves into the difficulties anticipated and the total effort needed to achieve success. Not just by the astronauts but collectively by NASA’s leaders and engineers at Cape Kennedy and the Houston Space Center. The documentary gives credit to the four different teams each led by a giant at NASA, Clifford Charlesworth, Gerald Griffin, Gene Kranz and Glenn Lunney. Their teams shared responsibility for the critical phases of the mission; launch and EVA maneuvers, the Luna landing, ascent, rendezvous, Luna burn and splash down.
Apollo 11 opens with the sights and sounds of the huge crawler hauling the Saturn V rocket topped by the Apollo capsule on its journey from the assembly building to the launch pad. Our first look at the engineers in launch control follows. We become familiar with these people at the Cape and Houston as the mission unfolds. It is disconcerting to realize that NASA was almost exclusively white and male, reflective of our society circa the late sixties. Nevertheless, we bond with them and share their anticipations, tensions and triumphs.
A second shock was remembering that this was filmed in 1969 when the counter-culture, the Vietnam War, political violence and dissention, racial strife and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and MLK Jr were tearing our Republic apart. NASA existed inside a bubble frozen in 1959. The grooming, dress and demeanor of the astronauts, management, the engineers and technicians reflect a by-gone era. Their white business shirts, dark, narrow ties and short haircuts scream IBM. The only exception; the eloquence of Kranz. (The Tom Hanks movie, Apollo13, provides a close-up of Gene Kranz’s style as played by Ed Harris.)
Apollo 11 reminds us of how risky this mission was, and the many things that could go wrong at any stage. To succeed, everything had to work when it needed to work, sequentially before the next thing that had to work could work. Thousands and thousands of little things had to perform over the course of eight days or else the mission would fail.
It has been said that our scientists and engineers conceived and constructed the atom bomb using slide rules but needed computers to make the moon landing possible. Fair enough, yet those 1960s main-frame computers had a just small fraction of the power in an iPhone 4.
The producers had an enormous amount of 16 mm film at their disposal shot by NASA and the astronauts during their flight. They edited this stock to heighten the tension. The producers didn’t use narration, relying on actual NASA announcements, and a few broadcasts from Walter Cronkite and others to enliven the documentary. Simple graphics followed by actual 16 MM movie footage carries the day.
Of course, the documentary includes the familiar excerpt
from John F. Kennedy’s brilliant “Go to the Moon” speech given on September 12,
1962 at Rice University:
“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the Moon… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”
Apollo 11 is “a must-see documentary” From countdown to lift-off and launch, to stage separation, to hook-up with the LEM, to the voyage to the moon, orbit, separation, descent and landing.
Tension and triumph run high from the moment that Apollo 11 separates into Columbia, the capsule where Collins would remain solo and the LEM named Eagle that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the Luna surface where it became Tranquility Base.
Tension continues with each decisive stage; firing the upper part of the Eagle to propel it back to mate with Columbia reforming Apollo11, jettisoning the LEM, the Moon burn to bring these heroes back to earth, ditching the command module leaving just the capsule for the insertion and landing.
I lived and died with all those engineers as they worried through each critical function that could result in failure or a “Good to go” and on to the next decision.
Apollo 11 ends with the successful recovery, our three heroes in isolation, their release and nation-wide celebrations, parades and awards.
As we walked out of the theater, Bob turned to me and asked, “Were we really that young when this happened and was our country that daring and able?”