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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)

In the film, the moonwalkers describe the stark beauty, deep shadows and fine dust of the barren satellite, which they compare to a lonely desert. But what really occupies their memories is not the moon, but home.

"It's just so beautiful. Even this great film doesn't do it justice, because film can't capture it," Scott said in an interview after the premiere.

It is now a cliche to describe our planet as a watery blue marble in vast black space. But this is the image that consumes the astronauts at the ends of their lives. How small we are. How pretty. How delicate. Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, remembers how from space he could hide the Earth behind his thumb, and everything -- his life and family, all history, all civilization -- vanished

Bean of Apollo 12 says that "since returning I've never complained about the weather, I'm glad there's weather." Because the Earth is weather. And people. He remembers how lonely the moon felt, and back home he goes to a mall "just to be around people."

"The moon doesn't change you," Scott says. "It reveals you. It makes you more so."

Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 speaks of an epiphany on the ride home, a sudden sensation of complete universal connectedness, between the particles of his own body and his fellow astronauts and the space capsule -- and everything. "I was manufactured in some earlier generation of stars," he says.

For Cernan, "what I was feeling, science and technology had no answers for." He felt the touch of a creator, but "a creator above the religions we create on Earth to govern our lives."

For Charlie Duke of Apollo 16, on his return to Earth, "Jesus came into my life."

Bean says, "We're living in the Garden of Eden." Scott describes the Earth as "an oasis, and we're not taking very good care of it." John Young, the Apollo 16 commander, refers to how clean the planet looked. "Now all the big cities have their own unique atmospheres."

While Sington says he did not set out to make a political film, "Shadow of the Moon" became one.

Why did we go to the moon? The Cold War, the Russians, politics, hubris, exploration. What did it mean? We're still debating that question.

Sington, who is British, has his own answer.

"In eight years, from the conception to completion, an immense, a really immense distance was traveled. America was the leader of the world, and the world was better for it. It's no accident it was the Stars and Stripes planted on the moon. Now America is the most powerful, but not the leader."

Imagine what can be done, Sington says, to face the challenges of our day-- environmental, social, political -- if the same national will were applied.

The film is silent on the lives of the moonwalkers after they returned to Earth; as Sington says, "that would have been a whole different movie."

Aldrin suffered from alcoholism and a breakdown, but recovered. Bean became a painter, Harrison Schmitt a U.S. senator. Duke became a motivational speaker. Young worked with NASA and piloted shuttle missions, before retiring at age 74. Mitchell took the most unusual turn, and devoted himself to the study of human consciousness and paranormal phenomena. He does not discount the existence of UFOs.

In the film, the producers include a clip from a 16mm camera that was mounted inside one of the Saturn rocket boosters. The camera captures the Apollo spacecraft in the moment of "trans-lunar injection," when it rockets away toward the moon. In the shot, you see Apollo fly away into a vast darkness, and then the booster begins to turn, and the Earth looms into view. Sington calls it the greatest sequence from space he has ever seen. He includes the entire two minutes.

"The Earth is the only place we can live," says Scott. "Anywhere we travel, to any planet, to any other place, we have to take the Earth with us. We will always be earthlings."

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