It was the same moon that had shone down when the pyramids were blueprints and "Hamlet" was still playing with the original cast. But now men were walking on it. Incredible. And even more incredible is the way the event has come to seem like some commonplace happenstance that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Do little kids still play astronaut, or do they think it's too old-fashioned?
Fortunately for all that's decent, at least one of the men who walked on the moon appears to have had a swell time doing it. And so "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon," a WRC special at 7 tonight on Channel 4, is an absolutely engaging hour of reminiscence by a winningly rumpled pioneer, Pete Conrad.
In November of 1969, as part of the Apollo 12 mission, Pete Conrad walked on the moon. He walked on the moon. He walked ON THE MOON.
"I don't think about the moon any more," he tells Jim Hartz, who wrote, produced and narrates this report, a breath of fresh air from outer space.Hartz induced Conrad to reminisce not only about the moon trip but about all the training and torture the astronauts went through during years of preparation.
Conrad and Hartz tour now-deserted launching pads at Cape Canaveral, it's all so dilapidated it looks like a ruin from another civilization. Over there is where one unmanned rocket fired up, belched the customary smoke, and then sat there on the launching pad, going through its programmed routine as if it really were on its way to the stratosphere. At one point a section disengages and a pathetic parachute flops out to fall with it the few dozen feet to the ground below.
There is abundant color footage to illustrate almost all of Conrad's recollections, including the goony bird space vehicles that looked like espresso machines and never quite made it past the test stage [though one graceful gizmo eventually evolved into that civilian thrill, the hang glider.]
It has long been thought or rumored that the astronauts were dull, humorless pin-striped bureaucrats. Not so. When Pete Conrad went to the moon, Huckleberry Finn went to the moon. America went to the moon. "I feel like Bugs Bunny," Conrad told mission control as he hopped around the lunar surface in his spacesuit.
We see the astronauts in training, bouncing about in sumulated low gravity, being twirled and poked and even taking Rohrshach tests given by what Conrad calls "the head shrinkers." He recalls how his modest attempts at rebellion -- merely asking what some of the tests were supposed to test -- earned him frowns from superiors, and thus he becomes more admirable by the minute.
Producer Hartz wanted to emphasize the wacky or little-known aspects of this epochal saga, which is fine. Conrad recalls how he was flipping through data while standing on the moon and came upon the Playmate of the Month, slipped in by someone back on earth. Conrad himself slipped a bottle of gin into the "recovery trailer" so the quarantined travelers could enjoy themselves after being rescued and sequestered.
And we hear again his little-remembered immortal words as he stepped onto the moon. Neal Armstrong had already been first and bounced into Bartlett's with that "one small step" line. So Conrad decided to say, after jumping out of the LEM and onto the moon, "That may have been a small step for Neal, but it was a long one for me."
Conrad's transporting congeniality is marred by the uninspired and intrusive use of flimsy bluegrass music as a cliche comic counterpoint to the slips and spills on the screen. It starts being annoying after about five minutes, after 30 minutes it becomes infuriating.
Hartz, who looks and sounds so genuinely entranced by Conrad's mellow memoirs, apparently didn't think we'd maintain interest without a pandering and too-cute coax. He was so wrong it hurts.
Also, it would have been nice to hear Conrad get a little lofty, at least near the hour's end, about the adventure which propelled him into history and into millions and millions of American living rooms. He's not that kind of a guy, but "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon" stirs splendid memories nevertheless.
As we enter the '80s nothing could be more appropriate than looking back at the men who helped make good on a promise made us by President Kennedy. We would land on the moon. We would walk ON THE MOON. And we did it, didn't we?
Looking back now it's hard not to feel that we were under appreciative then, that we were too distracted by other events to pay these great events their due. That Conrad is matter-of-fact and self-effacing makes him all the more a hero. Those must have been great times. Those must have been wonderful times. Remember when we walked on the moon?