In case you were not yet feeling like an old person, Nat Geo is marking the 50th (yes 5-0) anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a slate of space specials, headlined by Apollo: Missions to the Moon. The feature length documentary by Tom Jennings covers NASA’s moon program from the fatal Apollo 1 in 1965 to the conclusion of the program with Apollo 17 in 1972. The ancillary programs are generally shorter, and cover quite a bit of terrain: There are films about scientists looking for signs of life on Europa and running the first mission to Pluto. There’s a spotlight piece on Neil Armstrong and a film about the Hubble space telescope. There’s a peek inside SpaceX as it continues its work toward putting humans on Mars and an admittedly difficult-to-watch program on the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Of these, the most interesting for my money are Journey to Europa and The Armstrong Tapes; the former for especially high-quality photography and the special sauce that is Neil Degrasse Tyson, and the latter for the picture it paints of what being an astronaut really means (hint: these folks are not “normal.” They are a cross between Buddha and Iron Man). While the other programs are a little less compelling, whether because of sub-optimal style or pacing or a less-than-impressive host (or, in the case of the SpaceX program, a little repetitive if you have been watching Nat Geo’s MARS), they are all solid. They also illuminate something about why we do this, and why science is so eternally preoccupied with what else is out there.
The world has changed so profoundly since 1969 that it’s almost hard to absorb what happened to this planet the day humans successfully touched down on the surface of the moon. In fact, and this strikes me as more than a little sad, it might not get the same rapt attention today if we landed on, for example, Mars; the mind-numbing noise of social media would probably just keep lurching from tangent to tangent. So I’d like to recommend something: sit down with the feature-length Apollo: Missions to the Moon in a no-distraction situation and really soak it in.
The filmmakers sifted through some 1,300 hours of footage and over 10,000 photographs (there’s also some rare-to-unheard archival audio that’s especially stunning, including black box recordings and audio from Mission Control) to create a mosaic rendering of the Apollo program. It beautifully revives the sense of wonder and optimism (and anxiety and monomania, sure, but wonder and optimism!) conferred on a … well, on a less jaded generation, by its first glimpses of an almost unimaginable achievement: Men landing on the moon and coming home to talk about it. The Apollo astronauts weren’t just “heroes,” they were celebrities, cracking jokes on TV with Bob Hope. Some of the images the film leans on are what the word “iconic” used to be reserved for: Neil Armstrong’s space-suited image reflected in the shiny visor of Buzz Aldrin’s helmet; Aldrin’s footprint in the barren dust of the lunar surface; the first photographs of the earth “rising” over the moon. Others won’t be familiar, and the depictions of NASA staff, astronauts and their families, and the technology that got people off the planet are illuminating and affecting. Film clips show news anchors and Mission Control folks tearing up or going blank from incomprehension, families gathered around televisions all over the world as Armstrong and Aldrin step onto the moon’s surface, as well as nearly cracking from tension while the Apollo 13 mission goes sideways in what might be the longest four minutes in history.
As a historical document, the film’s a significant achievement, to be sure. But as a work of art, it’s also noteworthy. The editing is lovely. The rendering of a cogent and compelling narrative from so many monads of historical imagery is excellent. The interplay of revealing, new-to-us and extremely familiar material is masterful, inviting us to look at an old story with new eyes. What I maybe love most about this documentary is that something about the montage—and especially the carefully crafted sound design and how it plays off the interpolated static and moving images—serves to brilliantly augment the oscillations of noise and silence.
If you are old enough to remember the Apollo moon missions, this film will be a nostalgic kick and also a re-education. If you are not, you might find it uniquely revealing as a document of what has and has not changed in the last 50 years (in the actual technology and programming of human space flight, sure, but perhaps more so in how media operates in our lives and how we process information). It’s easy to catastrophize and imagine everything we live with now is uniquely horrible; this film is a reminder that little is happening that has not happened before. Governments have always indulged in competitive saber-rattling, industry and pure science have locked horns forever, human attention spans have always been frighteningly undependable. And for everyone who feels a technological leap has the power to unite us, there are those who find it divisive. What might reasonably be construed as unprecedented, though, is the amount of noise pollution we deal with on a daily basis and how desensitized it can make us to these real wonders.
Apollo: Missions to the Moon airs July 7th, 9 p.m. EDT/ 8 p.m. CDT
•”Explorer: Journey to Europa” (July 8, 8 p.m. EDT / 7 p.m. CDT)
•”The Armstrong Tapes” (July 8, 9 p.m. EDT / 8 p.m. CDT)
•”Challenger Disaster: The Final Mission” (July 8, 10 p.m. EDT / 9 p.m. CDT)
•”Mars: Inside SpaceX” (July 9, 8 p.m. EDT / 7 p.m. CDT)
•”Apollo: Back to the Moon” (July 9, 9 p.m. EDT / 8 p.m. CDT)
•”Hubble’s Amazing Journey” (July 10, 8 p.m. EDT / 7 p.m. CDT)
•”Mission Pluto and Beyond” (July 10, 9 p.m. EDT / 8 p.m. CDT)
•”Mission Saturn: Inside the Rings” (July 10, 10 p.m. EDT / 9 p.m. CDT)