Astronauts at  Work

Astronauts at Work

12/17/2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

by Vijay Venkatraman

“My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the moon,” says Charles Duke, who flew on Apollo 16 in 1972. “But my son Tom was 5 – and he didn't think it was any big deal.” Twelve American astronauts who went to the moon between 1969 and 1972 are heroes. The riveting documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” lets the survivors of these epic voyages tell the engrossing story in their own words.

Today, not unlike Tom, we are somewhat blasé about the moonwalk. Using NASA’s archival footage, British director David Sington ably recreates the awe-inspiring moments in January 1969 when the world watched the lunar landing of the first manned vehicle. Nothing can sum up the import of the lunar walk better than the mission commander Neil Armstrong’s simple line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Just when we are nearly crushed by the solemnity of that statement, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin intercedes with his comment about having grabbed the opportunity to fill up his urine bag before hopping off the ladder. The 99-minute documentary has many unexpected laugh out loud moments as it makes the audience appreciate the incredible odds the teams were up against.

John. F. Kennedy’s rousing address on the Space Effort recalls the technological challenges which had to be overcome to enable this voyage. Metal alloys needed to built the 300 feet tall rocket – capable of withstanding tremendous heat and stresses – hadn’t even been invented yet. Technology has grown at a tremendous pace since. “Particularly indicative of that is the enhancement of computer systems, because what you have in a cell phone has far more computer capability than we had on the spacecraft,” says Edgar Mitchell, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 14.

The momentum in the story is unsustainable once the spectacular climax is over. Though the reclusive Armstrong refused to be part of this film, we get introspections from others who once viewed earth from a distance. As the credits roll out, the astronauts summarily dismiss those who think the moon landing was a hoax. In 2002, a feisty 72-year-old Aldrin punched a pesky disbeliever who wanted him to swear on the Bible that the lunar mission was real; this clip – not part of the movie – is available on YouTube.

Most remarkably, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan talks about having a “guilt complex” over being a moonwalker while his fighter pilot friends fought the war in Vietnam. As someone who risked his life – and perhaps no one else’s – for a scientific cause, Cernan should not have any such qualms. As America is fighting yet another pointless war, the astronaut’s confession reminds us of what we humans are capable of when we put our resources to productive uses. Going to Mars – the next space venture – cannot be a solely American initiative, says Robert Seamans, a former NASA Deputy Director.

Despite commercial space flights, most of us are unlikely to traipse on the moon any time soon – so watch this timely and uplifting movie on the big screen instead. You will not be disappointed.