Friday, June 20, 2008
The Shadow of History
Just finished with In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington's fabulous and stirring documentary about the Apollo moon missions. The film revisits, four decades after the fact, the accomplishments and experiences of the members of the most exclusive of clubs: those who have walked on another world.
Here is another of humanity's Big Projects, maybe the ultimate one; the complexity and scope of the undertaking simply takes your breath away. It's Penn Station times five, and this time in pursuit of a goal that almost defies belief. The obstacles to be overcome are so numerous and so unanticipated for those of us without intimate knowledge, that to see the details up close is almost to witness a different phenomenon altogether from the one we expect. Everyone knows the basic arc of the story, but the devil was entirely in the details; this film reacquaints us with some of these details, though it doesn't aspire to be exhaustive.
Think of it: a 360-foot-high, seven million pound rocket blasts off ferrying three men inside a tiny crew capsule at the very top, shedding stages as it accelerates to some 17,000 miles per hour. What makes it to orbit--two separate, tiny spacecraft modules packaged together--is but a small fraction (in mass) of what began the journey only a couple minutes before. They orbit the Earth a single time before lighting another rocket engine that widens the craft's trajectory against the Earth's gravity until it escapes and shoots off toward the moon. Timing is everything, and their escape from Earth orbit must be aimed with incredible precision to hit exactly the necessary spot--which is itself in motion--to establish a stable orbit around the moon. (It's not like they can just turn the wheel slightly to the left and make a correction; there's essentially one way to get it right and literally an infinite number of ways to get it wrong.) Once in lunar orbit, a decoupling and docking maneuver is performed, and two of the three crewmembers crawl from one spacecraft--the Command Module--into the other spacecraft--the Lunar Module--and detach themselves for a descent to the surface, while the third man remains in lunar orbit in the Command Module. Getting down to the lunar surface and landing is entirely new territory, since without an atmosphere (or some medium in which they can deploy drag devices) they must slow their descent and land entirely under controlled rocket thrust--for which, of course, a predetermined amount of fuel must be carried. After the landing and exploration of the moon's surface, the Lunar Module itself splits in two, leaving the landing portion of the craft on the moon's surface, and blasts the other tiny portion back into orbit for a rendezvous back with the Command module--using yet another carefully predetermined fuel cache. After another ballet-like docking procedure up in lunar orbit, the crew reunites; then the Lunar Module is discarded and the Command Module fires yet another rocket at the precise moment to escape the moon's gravity and head back toward earth. This particular rocket firing must facilitate reentry to the Earth's atmosphere, which requires even more precision than the moonshot; a very specific angle and speed are required to prevent the spacecraft from glancing off of the atmosphere and bouncing out irretrievably into space. The reentry itself occurs under the protection of the ship's heat shield, which calculatedly destroys itself as the ship decelerates to a speed where the parachutes can be deployed.
I mean, is that not a description of an insane aspiration?! I would have dismissed this plan as being completely and wildly impossible to pull off. There are just too many opportunities for disaster. All of these numerous steps are contingent upon the previous steps occurring without a hitch, and all rely on complicated, untested machinery, much of which must work correctly and predictably out of the box if dire consequences are to be avoided. What a triumph of science that all of this--from orbits and trajectories to fuel calculations to numerous mechanisms and control machinery to the structure of the whole undertaking--was worked out theoretically, since so much of it could not be tested practically. But the theorizing worked brilliantly, and they did it--no fewer than six times. The only fatalities in the whole undertaking were three men killed on the ground during a routine test. This is not inconsequential, of course, but it's space exploration! Under the circumstances, it's an unbelievable accomplishment, and done with remarkable safety.
However mesmerizing I find this mission, the movie is really about the astronauts who actually did the near-impossible; and almost all the narration is done by the participants themselves. It's easy to forget that this fraternity of men is exceedingly small, and fortunately for this film many of them are still alive. It's an amazing group of specimens that we see collected at the time, fit, young, can-do men who volunteered for a really dangerous job. The men we meet present-day in the film are surprisingly self-effacing; certainly they're all realists about what the job entailed and what their accomplishments amounted to in practical terms.
But the undertaking by its very nature overreaches simple technical and scientific challenges to probe something fundamental about humanity itself. It's one of those ironies, talked about by Gene Cernan in his book The Last Man on the Moon (and reflected upon by Michael Collins in the film), that the personality type chosen, and the training given for the job made the participants ill-suited to grasp the emotional charge of the situation. The hazardous nature of the job made the ability to fly experimental aircraft and to improvise in a crisis situation the chief talents sought, and so people were chosen from among the fighter pilot corps. Needless to say, these men would likely have a collectively different take on the experience than, say, a group of writers or philosophers. So, almost like a Bach fugue, the substance and import of the mission is buried beneath a tightly controlled layer of stoic professionalism.
Now, in their twilight years, these men have had a lifetime to chew on their experiences. They've softened a bit and even look back on the events with awe and wonder, and with an understandable pride of accomplishment. The deep emotional aspects of this undertaking would be hard for anyone to cope with, let alone people not given to poetic rhapsodizing, and it's very interesting to see these men talk confidently about their tasks and duties and then be kind of at a loss for words when they try to comment on what it all means.
The ten or so men featured in the film are all quite engaging. They all seem in very good shape for their age (just as they were necessarily in great shape at the time), and even in their elder years they remain mentally keen. Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot from the pioneering Apollo 11 is especially engaging, with an affable manner and a delivery like Don Knotts. Buzz Aldrin is more reserved and contemplative, and the reclusive Neil Armstrong is notable for his absence on the film. There's quite a bit of talk about him, but he does not appear. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean (the fourth man to walk on the moon) is another engaging character, funny and charmingly open. We also hear from John Young, Eugene Cernan, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke, Harrison Schmidt, Edgar Mitchell, and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell.
With an appropriate sense of occasion, the whole endeavor was carefully chronicled by NASA. And the resulting still and moving images of the people and machinery are really stunning. So surreal that you'd believe them fake if we hadn't been there to witness it. Even in this age of flawless special effects and Photoshop, the shots of the Earth retain their power to amaze. In all human history only the 24 men who flew to the moon have had a whole-planet view of Earth, its colors (so bedrock to our sensibilities) a striking contrast against the backdrop of the absolute blackness of space. Those first whole-Earth pictures that were taken with a hand-held camera out the tiny viewports of the spacecraft are more monumental than any fiction.
I think most anyone would find this interesting, and some, like me, extremely so.