Icelandic Space Documentary Retraces Forgotten Apollo Footsteps

NEW YORK - A compelling new documentary takes a stroll through Iceland's often-overlooked contributions to the Apollo program and unfolds into a love letter to the moon and Earth. 

"Cosmic Birth," a film from Icelandic directors Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson and Rafnar Orri Gunnarsson that premiered Nov. 15, hinges on a sometimes forgotten piece of space history: In 1965 and again in 1967, two groups of NASA astronauts traveled to Húsavík, a small town in Iceland, to prepare for their journeys to the moon. 

In 2009, Örlygsson stumbled upon this piece of history while walking through a bookshop. He came across a newspaper from 1965 with a headline that read "Apollo astronauts training for Moon arrive in Iceland today." A lifelong fan of space exploration, he became inspired to open The Exploration Museum in Iceland. The museum focuses on Icelandic exploration, with a section dedicated to the Apollo training missions. 

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In addition to being an extension of Örlygsson's passion for history and space, the documentary tells the story of these missions and showcases humanity's relationship to the moon and Earth. 

Revisiting Apollo

For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Apollo 7 lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham, Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt returned to Iceland to revisit the site where they once trained, in a trip organized by Örlygsson. Rick and Mark Armstrong, sons of Apollo moonwalker Neil Armstrong, also visited to celebrate the anniversary. 

The documentary follows the astronauts on their return to Iceland as they explore and trek on the same paths they walked in the 1960s, reacting to the lush landscape 50 years later. They seem elated as they stroll through time, reminiscing about their training in the small town. 

The film also features in-person interviews with Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, who discuss their training in Iceland as well as their overall work as astronauts. 

The moon and the Earth

During a discussion with Anders about the famous Earthrise photo he took of Earth rising over the moon during the Apollo 8 mission, the larger message of the documentary slowly became clear: The film is more than a history lesson and a walk down memory lane; it's a creative and powerful reminder that we are Earthlings on a fragile planet orbiting in a vast and amazing universe. 

In addition to conversations with the astronauts and people such as Mark Armstrong, Örlygsson conveys this message in the film by speaking as a host, guiding the audience along a sandy beach to a model of Earth and chatting with Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, an Icelandic poet who wrote "Ode to the Moon," a children's book about the moon. 

Örlygsson said his admiration for the Apollo astronauts stems from "their deep appreciation for the Earth," he told at a screening of "Cosmic Birth" at The Explorers Club in New York on Nov. 15. "They really liked Iceland," he said, adding that he was most taken with their love of the planet and how they seem to see us all as equal members of the same species on a precious blue marble. Expanding further on the subject of equality, the film also touches on diversity in space exploration.

At the screening, Örlygsson said he hopes this documentary serves as an important reminder of how incredible and how fragile our planet is. 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.