In the Footsteps of Apollo: 'Magnificent Desolation'

IMAX has been involved with space since its inception. Journey to the Outer Planets and To Fly were two of the first films made in this large format. They took the audience, with breathtaking clarity, to places only dreamed of previously. At the beginning of the Space Shuttle era, IMAX formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, which led to a highly successful string of films starting with Hail Columbia, The Dream is Alive, and many others, including the most recent, Space Station 3D.

These films all appeared after the Apollo era was complete. Our missions to the Moon ended in December 1972 without any IMAX cameras flying there with the astronauts as they do today on the shuttle and station. It has thus been impossible to truly share the experience of landing and walking on the Moon with everyone on Earth, until now.

Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D opened September 23 with the widest release of any IMAX film. Two days previously, a world premiere event was held at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In attendance were a gathering of many Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts, the Administrator of NASA, officials from IMAX, and a few Hollywood celebrities.

The most visible person was the one man responsible for making Magnificent Desolation happen, Tom Hanks. Tom is known for his devotion to the exploration of space. He always held a fascination with human flights out of the atmosphere, but this gelled during his starring role in Apollo 13, a decade ago. Soon after making that film, he was compelled to create From the Earth to the Moon, the epic 12-part miniseries for HBO.

Even after all that, Hanks felt there was more to the story of the Moon landings, a personal one of the men themselves and what they experienced. On top of that, he felt a television or traditional movie screen could never impart the real feeling of being on another world, which is ultimately what he wants to convey.

As Brad Wexler, IMAX Chairman, told me, "Tom Hanks brought the project to us. He felt that the story of the men who walked on the Moon had never really been told, and the way the IMAX medium works, it really breaks down the wall with the audience and sucks you in. His goal is very, very simple: When you leave the theater, he wants you to feel as if you've walked on the Moon! IMAX is the medium to tell that story."

Through serendipitous happen-stance, the release of the movie coincided with the announcement, just days previously, of NASA's plan of action to get humanity off this planet and into deep space, with a return to the Moon by 2018 or even earlier.

Two time Space Shuttle veteran astronaut, Roger Crouch (STS-83 & 94), told me at the premiere, "I think there's a synergism between NASA and the results of this movie. It has a positive view toward space exploration. When I go talk to school children about space, it always crystallizes their vision of the future. I really see their excitement come up. I think it's very important not only for the kids but for adults to have that positive vision of the future."

Movies and literature have often provided the basis for inspiration, so I asked Roger what made him want to get involved in space in the first place, what inspired him to become an astronaut.

"When I was about nine years old, I saw a movie called Destination Moon. They did all these really exciting things, it had all this adventure and other cool stuff, but then at the end of the movie it said 'The end of the beginning,' and that really captured my imagination. The future of the world was that adventure of going to the Moon or going into space."

Will this movie inspire the next generation to go into space? "Yes," Roger replied, "I'm hoping it will, I really am. Seeing this movie in 3D will be absolutely awesome."

His sentiments were shared by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan. "I've been trying to share with people what it was like to walk on the Moon for over three decades," he said, "trying to recreate that environment in their minds. I think this movie will help take them there visually, and if you let your imagination wander, almost physically."

How important does Gene believe it is for movies like this to be produced in order to help inspire the public?

"Absolutely significantly important. I think the public will rally around this movie. I think you're going to see every IMAX theater in the country filled to capacity.

"People ask me all the time," Gene continued, "'Why did we quit? When are we going back?' They're starved for something like this. It's exciting, it's a romance. Space and aviation have been a romance for a hundred years. The greatest and most important legacy that Orville and Wilbur [Wright] left us was the inspiration for people like me and those that follow to dream. Dream the impossible, then make it happen. That's what this is all about."

The hope of Magnificent Desolation is the rekindling of memories for those of us who were there to watch in person and give those who weren't, a first- hand perspective. For NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, this task is very important in implementing our future vision to return to the Moon and go beyond.

Griffin told me, "The biggest lesson I want to bring forward from the Apollo generation is commitment. The President has set us on a far more exciting and a far more strategically important course for America's manned spaceflight program than we've had for 45 years. We need to get on that course."

Russell "Rusty" Schweickart (Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot) was the first person to pilot the craft that would land us on the Moon, but he never got to touch down there himself. How did he feel after seeing the film?

"It's really very, very good. What [the audience is] going to do is get this tremendous experience, the really high-quality, three dimensional experience of walking around on the Moon. It's very powerful, especially for kids. I thinks it's going to have a big impact. You realize the degree of risk we were willing to take and the adventuresome spirit that was embedded in Apollo. You kind of miss it when you realize we haven't had that recently. "

Living with a moonwalker had a significant impact on the life of Nancy Conrad. Better than most, she understands what it must have been like to be there because her late husband, Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad, shared his adventures with her over their many years together.

"I guess we all get to go to the Moon in this movie," she said. "I finally get to see what Pete saw. It's about time I got to go! I wish Pete were here to see this movie himself. He would have jumped up and clicked both heels and said 'Whoopee!' When I got the invitation to attend this evening, Tom [Hanks] wrote me and said Pete was inviting us all to come back."

Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), an astronaut who also did not make it to the Moon, said of the movie, "I think it's excellent, it's very inspiring. Since I didn't get to fly to the Moon, this is an immersion experience that makes me feel very good and also makes me feel very envious of my friends who went."

Then Walt confided in me that he did find a small fault in the movie. "You and I both know that we had four remarkably successful missions that laid the groundwork for them [Apollos 7, 8, 9, & 10]. I tell you, most of the public doesn't remember and once more they are going to see this film and think we just picked up and went to the Moon, landed, and did it again and again."

He certainly has a point, but obviously you can only put so much into a 40-minute film and getting across the feeling of landing and walking on the Moon was the mandate of Magnificent Desolation. To that end, it succeeds beyond anything that has ever come before.

Commander Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame had the opportunity to land on the Moon, and then it was yanked away by the near catastrophe. As he walked in to see Magnificent Desolation for the first time, I asked him if he was looking forward to stepping onto the Moon vicariously. He confided, "That's why I'm here. Since I missed it on [Apollo] 13, I might as well see what I missed in 3D!"

Nearly everyone who is asked if they want to travel to the Moon and kick around on its dusty surface, as did those twelve from Apollo, answer positively. With three Space Shuttle flights and one long duration stay aboard the International Space Station already under his belt, you might think Carl Walz would say he has had enough of spaceflight. Instead, he enthusiastically jumped on board.

"I would love to go to the Moon. I would sit on that rocket, you bet!"

Watching Magnificent Desolation puts all of us on that flight to the Moon.