“We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share,” President John F. Kennedy informed Congress in 1961 while outlining his challenge for the United States to not only land a man on the moon before the end of that particular decade but ensure his safe return back on our planet.
In David Sington’s treasure of a documentary presented by Ron Howard, audiences not only discover the great pains taken by NASA in order to make that dream a reality but are also given unprecedented and incredible firsthand accounts by the astronauts of the nine Apollo missions (1968-1972) who share their own recollections and insights into what it is like to travel to the moon.
While critical assessment of Kennedy’s motives seem to infer that it was primarily a political quest to beat the Russians in the space race, what cannot be argued is how extraordinary that prospect was and how, in putting together the best and brightest individuals who, as Tom Wolfe famously wrote had “the right stuff"--and contrary to the public’s typical perception of the men as “space cowboys”-- the astronauts were actively involved in the design and helped make space travel possible. In recounting not only the landmark successes but also the horrific tragedies including the deaths of the first three Apollo astronauts who perished in an electrical fire while trapped inside their spacecraft, the film also provides an intriguing counterpoint to the Vietnam era as astronauts confess that had it not been for NASA, they would’ve been overseas and while one admits that even though it may not have been a just war, he still feels immense guilt about his colleagues fighting his war for him.
Particular attention is paid to the monumentally historic Apollo 11 mission that found Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Neil Armstrong-- three seemingly ordinary men all born in 1930-- become instant heroes in July of 1969 with their fateful three day trip to the moon. While it’s the “coolest under pressure” Armstrong and the technically aware Aldrin who have always gotten the majority of the press, I was especially mesmerized by the accounts of Mike Collins, the least celebrated hero of the three, most likely because he was the one who was chosen to oversee the men’s moonwalk from the craft. With his charm, wit and brains, Collins helped keep the entire event into perspective by illuminating audiences with his confession that there is so much to do on the journey and so many different things that can go wrong at any given time that contrary to most people’s assumption that the men are just there for the ride, it’s far more complicated and stressful than one can imagine.
Sington’s In the Shadow of the Moon is a vital documentary that’s particularly riveting given the lack of media interest in NASA, as it seems that, at least for my generation whose first accounts of astronauts came with the horrific devastation of the Challenger, the only time NASA is given any media attention is when something goes wrong.
Above all, Shadow offers an important, life-affirming celebration of a time when individuals could not only fly high through the sky but visit other worlds by the sheer force of their brain power, ambition and will.