Reaching For the Moon At Sundance

Apollo 11's Mike Collins calls the moon
Apollo 11's Mike Collins calls the moon "a scary place." (Nasa)

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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

PARK CITY, Utah -- "I have two moons in my head."

That's Mike Collins, the pilot of the command module for Apollo 11, at the beginning of the movie. The moon all earthlings know and the moon he circled.

"I didn't sense any invitation from the moon to come into its domain," Collins recalls. "It was a hostile place, a scary place."

Only 12 men walked upon its surface. Three of them are dead. One, Neil Armstrong, is something of a recluse. But the other eight? For the first and perhaps last time, a filmmaker gathered these most rare human specimens together and let them describe in their own words what it felt it like -- and what it meant to them -- to visit another world.

The film by David Sington, "In the Shadow of the Moon," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and included footage unearthed from the NASA vaults that has never been widely seen before. Some of it is amazing. Discovery has acquired rights to show the movie on television and is seeking a distributor to put it into theaters.

The documentary is different from its genre in that it appears to be about feelings, which is not something the Apollo astronauts are famous for displaying.

Alan Bean of Apollo 12 describes himself as "one of the more fearful of the astronauts." He remembers looking out the window of the spacecraft and thinking, "There's death out there -- an inch away."

Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 commander, confesses that he felt guilty when he was selected to be an astronaut, because as a military pilot he should have been flying missions in Vietnam.

The film offers no narration. The story is told by the astronauts, who talk to the camera. A first impression? These are some tough old guys, now deep into their 70s. They are also funny, emotional, intense and sometimes profound.

In 1961, President Kennedy set an audacious goal, "beautiful in its simplicity," as one of the astronauts put it. Where? The moon. When? By the end of the decade. The Apollo program employed 400,000 people and consumed an estimated $135 billion (2006 dollars). Between 1969 and 1972, six missions made the trip.

In his remarks about the film, Sington and his producing partner, Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott, reminded the Sundance audience that each of the cellular phones they muted during the screening contains many times the computing power of an Apollo spacecraft.

It took three days to voyage to the moon (during the trip, the astronauts shaved). Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the lunar dust and utter the words about a giant leap for mankind. The second man out the door was Buzz Aldrin, who before he stepped from the ladder of the lunar module paused to fill up his urine bag.


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