Reaching For the Moon At Sundance

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.

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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