For the first time, watching In The Shadow Of The Moon, I came to understand why some people are so convinced that the Apollo landings were a giant hoax. Looking back on it from our more fearful times the whole Apollo project seems like an impossible dream. We have moved so far from the mindset of the people who succeeded in taking men to the surface of another world that we no longer have any common points of reference. The story of Apollo is one that we urgently need to hear again.

Normally I take notes throughout a movie, scribbling down little quotes, recording my impressions. My notes for In The Shadow Of The Moon stop after I wrote this down this snippet from a speech by JFK:

“We shall send to the moon, two hundred and forty thousand miles away, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, fitted together with a  precision better than the finest watch, on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over twenty-five thousand miles per hour causing a heat about half that of the temperature of The Sun… and do all this and do it right and do it first before this decade is out. We must be bold.”

Now, friends, try and imagine a modern politician saying those words. Imagine them suggesting just a project that would require “new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented” and if you can imagine that, try to imagine not only that a politician said it but that when it is said the reaction wasn’t one of scorn. The press didn’t hound him out of office, the people didn’t roll their eyes and mock and industry didn’t complain about big government impinging on their right to do as they please. Millions were inspired. Hundreds of thousands rolled up their sleeves and made it happen.

Suddenly you realise that the Apollo programme simply cannot have happened in this reality.

And then there are the men who flew to the moon.

These are stoic, straightforward men who can talk about moments of terrible disaster and towering achievement in the same flat tones, who all seem to share the same dry wit and who accept their unique place in history with a wry contentment. Nothing could be further from the modern brand “celebrity” who clamours for every scrap of media attention when their greatest achievement is to have slept with a footballer (or have slept with someone who once slept with a footballer).

Take, for one example, this little intercut piece featuring Charlie Duke and John Young, astronauts on Apollo sixteen, talking about the excitement and the fear that came with sitting on top of 300 foot of very explosive rocket fuel as it blasted them off the surface of Earth:

Charlie Duke: I found out from the Flight Surgeon later on that my heartbeat was 144 at lift-off. John’s was 70.
John Young: Yeah. Well, I told him, I said, “Mine’s too old to go any faster.”

Then try to imagine if the cretins on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here could summon half of the same sang froid. Bush-tucker challenges my arse!

The idea that these two groups of people belong to the same species, were dragged dripping from the same gene pool, seems extraordinary. There are generations of people for whom nothing that walks on the face of distant planets around alien suns could be as unfamiliar as an Apollo astronaut.

Watching this film I was, again and again reminded of the lines from Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”:

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

That “lonely impulse of delight” flickers again and again in the eyes of these now old men when they recall the deeds of their youth. For example, Alan Dean – a test pilot – recounts the day he made his decision to apply for the astronaut corps.

“I thought I had the best job in the world, from the day I entered flight training until I looked on TV one day and Al Shepard goes up in a rocket. He’s gone higher than I’ve ever gone, and faster than I’ve ever gone, and most importantly, he’s made more noise doing it. He’s even on TV doing it. How do I get that job?”

It’s the same when they talk about the impact of seeing the Earth from the surface of the moon, or of riding a bucking rocket out of the Earth’s atmosphere, or the flaming ferocity of re-entry. Their stories are gripping but their telling of them is matter-of-fact. They were just doing their job and there’s never any doubt that these men would do it all again at the drop of a hat. And no doubt that what they did was more than just Cold War propaganda but the kind of deed that defines mankind.

In The Shadow Of The Moon is a simple documentary – stock footage interspersed with talking heads. That the talking heads belong to all (except the sadly absent Neil Armstrong) of the surviving Apollo astronauts and the stock footage recounts what remains the most astonishing episodes in the history of man’s exploration of our universe means, of course, that no tricks or gimmickry are needed – or wanted.

By simply allowing these men to recount their story in the simplest of forms director Sington succeeds in creating a document that is genuinely capable of making a viewer reassess their own life and what they’ve done with it. This is a story everyone should hear again.

(Originally published in Matrix 185, May/June 2007)

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