Apollo Astronauts Bring Moon Down to Earth in Film
Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean steps down to moon's surface during his 1969 flight.
Credit: NASA/Discovery Films/ThinkFilm.

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of astronauts have launched into space, but only a select few have looked back upon their home planet Earth from the Moon.

?In the Shadow of the Moon,? a new documentary that opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, tells the human stories of NASA?s former Apollo astronauts ? now in their 70s ? who circled or landed on Earth?s nearest neighbor between 1968 and 1972.

 ?It?s an extremely simple film,? British director David Sington told reporters this week. ?It?s kind of like an astronaut?s home movie.?

NASA first sent astronauts around the moon during the December 1968 flight of Apollo 8, then landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin ?Buzz? Aldrin on its Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, winning the Space Race with the former Soviet Union. Five more moon landings, and the aborted Apollo 13 attempt, followed. 

With the support of ?Apollo 13? director Ron Howard, Sington interviewed astronauts from each of NASA?s lunar missions spanning Apollo 8 to Apollo 17, and combed through the space agency?s video archives for unseen film that was later remastered in high definition. The resulting 100-minute film, pared down from 60 hours of material, is a compelling glimpse into the humanity of NASA?s moon-bound Apollo crews.

"To me, this film captures the emotional side of the space program, which we never discussed. It was all technical stuff," Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke told reporters. "I don't remember once, at any of the briefings, anybody asking, 'Well, what did it feel like?'"

Duke likens his lunar trek to being a five-year-old and able to celebrate your birthday, Christmas and every holiday in between at the same time.

"It's such a unique experience, that there's nothing you can compare it too down here," Duke said. "The excitement and the enthusiasm that one has there, at least in my case, is really difficult to describe. It's an awesome experience."

"Your neck was out so far, you're literally betting your life on all that hardware," said Alan Bean, who served as lunar module pilot on the Apollo 12 mission in 1969.

Bean dubbed himself one of NASA's more fearful astronauts and in the film describes his worries that a capsule window could blow out during the three-day trip to the moon and cripple--or end--the mission.

"I wanted those three days to collapse down to 10 minutes or something because I was always afraid something would break. And it did on the next flight, Apollo 13," Bean told reporters. "You want to be there, you're glad you're there, but you want to come back home."

It's perhaps fitting that Sington's documentary debuts this year, which will see the 50th anniversary of spaceflight on Oct. 4, the day the former Soviet Union inaugurated the Space Age by launching the first-ever artificial satellite - Sputnik - into orbit in 1957.

Aldrin, the second human ever to set foot on the lunar surface, credited Sputnik?s launch with spurring the U.S. to send astronauts to the moon. But it was only years after that historic flight with Armstrong and command module pilot Michael Collins that he was able to reflect on the experience, Aldrin added.

?I think it was a universal story,? said Sington, adding that every time he looks up at the moon he remembers that 12 humans once walked across its surface. ?It was an American achievement, but it was a global event and it?s something that people remember all around the world.?

?In the Shadow of the Moon? focuses most of its attention on Apollo 11?s success, with relatively little detail on the particulars of subsequent flights or their science goals. But the experiences of NASA's Apollo astronauts ring clear as a bell.

?The excitement for me was to explore to find out, to discover something new and to come back and tell folks about it,? said Edgar Mitchell Apollo 14 lunar module pilot. ?That?s what explorers always do, and we were privileged to be part of that vanguard of explorers to take a look at our nearest neighbor.?

Sington and the Apollo astronauts do have final message for any remaining skeptics who still maintain, nearly four decades after the first Moon landing, that NASA hoodwinked us all with snazzy special effects on a movie soundstage.

"We went to the moon nine times," Duke says in the documentary. "Why would we fake it nine times?"

?In the Shadow of the Moon? opens in this week in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for more cities.

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