Lab Notes Goes to the Movies

Buzz Aldrin didn't get to be the first man to set foot on the moon--that privilege went to Neil Armstrong--but he did get his own first. After Armstrong took his historic "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, it was Aldrin's turn to back down the steps of the lunar landing module toward the dusty surface. NASA had told the astronauts to move slowly, Aldrin recalls. So in between steps, he decided he had a moment to, as he delicately puts it, fill the liquid-waste bag inside his space suit. Believe me, you will never again look at the footage of Aldrin slowly descending the steps and pausing almost imperceptibly to stake a claim to his own first the same way again. "Everyone has their own first on the moon, and that one hasn't been disputed," Aldrin says.

If you want to see and hear astronauts as you've never seen and heard them before, see "In the Shadow of the Moon." At the 2007 Sundance film festival, it won the World Cinema Audience Award, and also picked up prizes for Best Documentary and Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking at this year's Sedona International Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, and the Grand Prize at the Boulder International Film Festival. It won't be released in theaters until September, but put it on your calendar now: director David Sington got 10 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon to open up as never before. He pairs their reminiscences with space footage that you'd swear is simulated, but it's real: Sington and his crew dug through thousands of hours of NASA archives for scenes in space, at mission control and inside the Apollo spacecraft that have never been shown to the public.

Between 1969 and 1972, from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17, six missions deposited astronauts on the surface of another world. Maybe it's the passage of time, maybe it's the perspective that comes with age, but the astronauts Sington filmed have thrown off the old "right stuff" taciturnity and toe-the-NASA-line reticence. Jim Lovell, best known as the commander of the aborted Apollo 13 mission (Tom Hanks played him; Lovell himself had a cameo at the end as the commander of the naval ship that picked up the crew once they finally landed safely in the Pacific), remembers how he and other astronauts felt at the time President Kennedy declared it the nation's mission to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s: "At the time, the Atlas boosters were blowing up every other day at Canaveral. It looked like a good way to have a very short career."

John Young, who commanded the first space shuttle mission in 1981 as well as flying on Apollo 10 and 16, remembers Gus Grissom, who died in the infamous 1967 fire on the launchpad because no one thought to ask what would happen to a 100%-oxygen environment in the event of a spark. "Gus said, if I say anything about the wiring, they'll fire me." It makes you wonder if the NASA culture of shutting up about potential risks--which contributed to both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies--will ever change.

Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, is eloquent as he describes the guilt he felt over being an idolized astronaut while his peers were flying and losing their lives in Vietnam. Michael Collins, who stayed in the orbiter while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon on the fateful July day, describes being "worried all the time," and thinking how forbidding the moon looked and how disinclined "to welcome us into its domain."

As a kid, I watched live news coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, but I don't remember--I'm pretty sure it wasn't revealed at the time--how dicey the landing was. Armstrong had to pilot the lander over miles and miles of the surface looking for a place to put down, avoiding boulder fields and craters and hills. Mission control was about to abort the landing when he finally set down on--of course--the Sea of Tranquility.

Collins recalls being greeted as a hero as he traveled the world upon his return, and was struck by something. "People said, 'we did it'--we, we, we. I thought that was a wonderful thing," that people throughout the world saw the moon landing as a triumph for humanity and not only America (ironic, since the space race was fueled by cold war competition with the Soviet Union). It's been a while since the world saw America as inspirational. Or, as Collins adds, ". . . ephemeral, but wonderful."

Even if you can't imagine being interested in the Apollo era, this film will surprise and delight, and have you wondering where that spirit went.