MovieMonday: Apollo 11

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the only manned landing on a celestial body not named Earth comes this commemorative documentary of that NASA achievement.

Using film from NASA’s archives, director Todd Douglas Miller shows us eight days in July 1969, from the towing of the Saturn V rocket bearing the Columbia and its lunar lander, Eagle, to their takeoff platform, then through the launch, mission and return to earth.

To the extent there is narration, it comes from late television anchor Walter Cronkite with some added back-and-forth between the astronauts and engineers in Florida and Houston.

Perhaps to its credit, the movie does not gloat about US dominance in the space race.  The astronauts land, and, yes, plant an American flag, but speak of peace and representing all earthlings in the pursuit of science.

There are also scenes of crowds assembled to watch the explosive liftoff and the helicopters and aircraft carrier waiting to pick up the three-man crew after splashdown in the Pacific.  There is not excessive fawning over astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, who make a point of acknowledging the contributions of hundreds (thousands?) of others whose planning and tracking made the whole thing possible.

Ultimately, the film is an homage, like a television news production but with more camera angles.

A couple things are missing.  First is technical context.

Almost everyone in the US today has stronger computing power on a cellphone or laptop than the entire NASA team did for that ambitious moonshot.  I’d have liked to know more about the size of the team, and the overall effort that went into the whole Apollo 11 project, piece by piece.

In this, I am like Alex Heeney of the thoughtful Canadian website Seventh Row.  He said this in his article about the movie:

“It keeps you immersed in the action, but at a great cost: most of the time, you don’t know what’s happening beyond the basics. A simple animation was created for the film to help the audience track the flight-path and the key maneuvers, which is extremely helpful.
“But even as a trained engineer and space enthusiast with a fair bit of background knowledge on the mission, I had trouble following all the intricacies. I felt like I needed footnotes for each scene.”

The second missing piece is historical context.  We learn that in 1961 President John F. Kennedy committed the country to a manned lunar landing before 1970.  After his assassination in 1963, the Florida space center was renamed for him and the project continued, perhaps with understandably greater urgency.

Still there are questions, unrelated to Kennedy, that deserve consideration:

— Could the Apollo 11 mission have been accomplished faster and more efficiently without live astronauts?   Would the project have been less valuable with the same mounted photo equipment and with machines instead of astronauts scooping up lunar soil and rocks?

— Were Americans so enamored of beating the country’s then-enemy, the USSR, which also was said to be pursuing a manned landing, that the risk and cost of Apollo 11 was worth it?

Manned space exploration is dangerous, and it was known to be dangerous before before Apollo 11.  In 1967, three astronauts died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft during on-the-ground training before their scheduled flight.

Since 1969, there have been worse casualties.
— In 1986, all seven team members of space shuttle Challenger died shortly after a failed takeoff.  One of the team was the first “teacher in space” who had prepared lesson plans for the mission; school students around the country saw the explosion on television in their classrooms.
— In 2003, the seven-member team of Space Shuttle Columbia died during an equipment malfunction as the shuttle was near landing on earth.

We now talk of travel to Mars undertaken by private companies, but there has not been a second manned lunar landing, which suggests that such research is not critical in the larger NASA scheme.   We participate in the earth-orbiting International Space Station and have launched far more ambitious unmanned probes to observe and research far more distant parts of our universe.

Few would question the value of space exploration, but it seems fair to ask whether identifying it with heroic astronauts adds value to the enterprise.

Note:

Here, from a Redditor post last year, is a pretty nice (albeit inexpensive) rendering of the Apollo 11 spacecraft from takeoff to landing.

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