Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, on the strength of having gone to another world, got to tour this one extensively, and wherever they went, people exclaimed, not “You did it!”, but “We did it!” Three guys, basically standing in for the whole world.
That remembrance by Collins, I think, is one of the most haunting aspects of David Sington’s glorious documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in which ten of the surviving Apollo astronauts tell, in their own words accompanied by newly-restored archival footage, the stories we thought we’d heard before.
Oh, we know the outline: JFK, anxious to beat the Russkies, vows to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and Neil Armstrong takes that first small step in the summer of ’69. But the process of getting from the Point A of a Presidential speech to the Point B of Tranquility Base created some seriously scary moments, the sort that prove the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once observed that the hero is no braver than the rest of us but he’s braver five minutes longer. We see this, for instance, when Apollo 11’s computer system gives out with the pre-Microsoft equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death literally right before the actual lunar landing. Rebooting, needless to say, is out of the question. Lesser folks those of us lacking the Right Stuff, as it were might have panicked. Turns out that it’s a pipe issue: too much data for too little processor. But Armstrong, seasoned pilot that he is, is prepared to fly the lander by the seat of his pants if he has to, and computer be damned. (The damned computer eventually catches up with the datastream.)
You don’t hear from Armstrong in person in this film: he’s always maintained that his first-man-on-the-moon status was purely a matter of chance, that any of the other members of the Apollo team could have done it just as well. You keep wondering when they’re going to bring him on camera, but they never do. Roger Ebert told this story: “Gene Siskel sat next to him on an airplane once, and thought to himself, ‘Here is a man who is very weary of being asked what it was like to walk on the moon.’ So they talked about other things.” I am delighted to note that Buzz Aldrin, the number-two man on the moon, has his own number-one distinction, which I won’t spoil for you here.
The isolation of space is almost a character in its own right, and Collins, left in orbit while Aldrin and Armstrong explored the lunar surface, acknowledges it as a continuing presence, but one that never got to him. It’s not lonely, exactly even in space, Houston’s still in your ear, and besides, you’ve got things to do but it does seem to have a humbling effect.
What the Apollo astronauts had in common was simply this: they had always wanted to fly, and they got to fly to a destination no one else had ever seen. (And, it must be noted, that no one has seen since.) They’re in their seventies now, but you can still see their faces light up as they tell their stories. More than anything else I saw during the 100 minutes of In the Shadow of the Moon, that illumination brings an enlightenment of its own: how it is that men (and women) have always looked up to, looked up through, the sky.
Then as now, the heavens beckon. It’s time, once again, we answered.