18 April, 2008

“My father was born the year after the Wright Brothers...”

So here’s the thing.

The other weekend I went to the movies to see a couple of films in the World Cinema Showcase, a film festival they always hold this time of year. And I've found that both films have really stayed with me over the past two weeks, I find myself returning to the films, pondering them. So I decided to write a couple of posts about the films. The first film was a documentary called In The Shadow Of The Moon, the story of the Apollo missions and the moon landings, told by the astronauts themselves. Really excellent fascinating film.

But one thing I found really interesting was that, when I mentioned that I was seeing this film to a friend, the first thing he said to me was “So, what do you think? Do you think it actually happened?” And when he asked me that, it staggered me for a bit. Because I’ve heard the conspiracy theories about the moon landing being faked, I’ve read the emails, seen the documentaries. And I thought they raised some interesting questions, but I never doubted that the moon landings happened, if only for one reason. There would have had to be thousands of people involved in the faking of the lunar missions. And as far as I am aware not one person has come out in the last 40 years to say “It was faked”. Does that seem likely? Watergate was broken because of one person that decided to leak the details, and everyone manages to keep it secret that one of the most important milestones in human achievement didn't happen? In the last part of the documentary, the astronauts talked about the radical effect that their experiences had on them and the way they saw the world - some became passionate about the environment, and so on. Two of the astronauts apparently because Christians after their lunar experiences caused them to see the world, the universe, and the possibility of a creator in a new way. And yet they sustain a lie about the single most important event in their life for 40 years? So no, I don’t think the moon landings were faked, and the film just reinforced that belief.

But more than that, the film actually made me made me sad about the “faked landing” conspiracy theory. Up until now, it never really bothered me – people can believe it was faked what they want, it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t make any difference to the truth. But when the subject of the moon landings comes up and the first question out of my friend’s mouth is “Was it faked?” And then you see the film, and you realise how incredible the accomplishment was, it starts to bother you that in the minds of many people, this achievement is diminished, dismissed as having never happened. And that’s sad.

I was born 8 years after the moon landing. It has always been a part of my world, one of the many things that mankind has achieved. It’s one of those things that I’m aware of, but you just take for granted. Which is extraordinary, because it was a stunning achievement. Easily the greatest achievement by humanity in our entire history. One of the astronauts made the comment in the film that his father was born the year after the Wright Brothers flew. Which means we went from first flight to the moon in two generations. That’s just incredible.

And pretty miraculous. JFK established an remarkably difficult challenge when he announed that man would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and the pressure that that created in NASA was intense. We see the early test rockets, blowing up, crashing, generally just failing. We hear about the crew members in Apollo 1 that died in a fire during training, the impact that that tragedy had on the program. We learn about how the race to make it by the end of 1969 was so great that they had Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 13 all trained up simultaneously and scheduled to go 2 months after each other. We hear the speech that had been pre-written for Nixon to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin failed to leave the moon. We discover that the astronauts themselves were heavily involved in the design of the spaceships. And in one of the most fascinating moments, you hear Michael Collins talking about how, once Armstrong and Aldrin had left in the Lunar Module for the surface, he was left to orbit the moon alone in the Command Module, the most lonely person ever - he says he wasn't bothered by it, that he had tasks to do to fill his time, but it's an eerie thought to think of. And all this drives home that this was a dangerous and scary project to be working on. Exciting, radical, historic, yes, but also bloody terrifying.

And there's the impact of the flight on the rest of the world. We've all heard about how the Earth stood still to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps, but one of the stories I found most fascinating was hearing how the Apollo 11 went on a worldwide tour after they returned. And everywhere they went, it wasn't "You did it", or "The Americans did it". Everyone had the same reaction - "We did it." This wasn't an achievement for the United States, this was an achievement for humanity. Only 24 people have ever orbited the moon, only 12 people have ever walked on the surface of the moon. And yet there is something about this event that made everyone have a sense that they owned that moment. It was a moment quite unlike any other in human history, and that was the exciting thing about the film - that it really brought that moment, that story, that event to life in a way that nothing I had previously seen about the moon landings had achieved. And that was what I found special about the film. Strongly recommended.

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