Sunday, September 23, 2007

Right to the Moon

Last night, a friend and I took in In the Shadow of the Moon, a newly-released documentary about the Apollo Program. It was everything I hoped for, and more. It was interesting from a technical and historical aspect... but moreover, it was deeply, deeply human.

A little background here... it's about me, but this is my blog, after all. When I was a really little boy, seven or eight, I was very interested by the planets of our solar system. These huge, distant, foreign places, so different from Earth. This was a time when space exploration (at least from a Western perspective) was being done by robots. The Pioneers and Voyagers were sending back photos of Jupiter and Saturn. The Vikings had shown us Mars close up. But no Westerner (read: American) had been in space since Skylab. It was a drought in manned space flight for the Western world. So I had little context.

At my age, I was alive for the first Moon landing, but I not old enough to remember or understand it. I vaguely remember Apollo 17, the last moonshot... not the particulars, just the event. I was four years old, and I still remember looking up at jet planes and having the impression that people went to the Moon about as regularly as they flew in planes. It just seemed that commonplace.

Fast forward nearly a decade. When I was twelve, I began to become interested in manned space flight (this was in the days just before the shuttle resumed the American presence in space on a human level). I was reaching adolescence, and human stories were beginning to appeal to me... not merely the mechanics and nifty aspect of things, but the romance, the risk, the adventure of it. So I began reading up on the history I'd lived but did not remember. I used to spend lunch hours in the school library, pouring over books and issues of National Geographic nearly as old as I was, full of pictures and names. I can still remember being amazed to discover that twelve, and only twelve, Americans had walked on the Moon, and only twice that number had ever been to it, either to its surface or in orbit. I had imagined hundreds of people had done so. Even more amazing still was the discovery, when I went looking for a list of Soviet names, that the Soviet Union had never sent any human being to, or landed a human being on, the Moon. These 24 Americans were it. Period. Full stop. The only human beings who had ever left the gravity of Earth and gone to another world.

And so they remain, to this very day. Only two dozen.

And they have begun passing. God forbid, but it must be said: one day, reasonably soon, living memories of the Moon from close up will be gone. The men (and they were all men) who visited the Moon between 1968 and 1972, in their 30s and 40s then, are in their 70s and 80s now. And that's what makes this project and ones like it so very, very fundamental to humanity. No one has been to the Moon in 35 years now. Experience, know-how, even some of the technology is lost to us. Some of it rusts away... some of it dies. Recording every nuance is so important, if we are to go back, spread out, take our destiny beyond the cradle and into our universe.

Okay... enough of that. :)

The movie is gorgeous. Humourous. Nail-biting. Moving. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie puts us face to face with a handful of the people who did the actual work of going to the Moon. The warm, honest, self-effacing wit of Mike Collins. The breathtakingly-expressed wonder of Gene Cernan. The down-to-Earth (no pun intended) humanity of Alan Bean. The approachability and openness of Jim Lovell. Buzz Aldrin's joy in the technical, Charlie Duke's memories of mundane made amazing, Harrison Schmidt's pride in the achievements of science...

I find it amazing that a movie made nearly 40 years after Apollo 11 can still make me anxious, watching Walter Cronkite remind me that an hour and twenty-nine minutes from "now", Apollo 11, seen behind him, will lift off to do something long ago accomplished, but when he spoke the words, still something we had not yet achieved. I know how it turned out; we all do... and yet, I felt that pang in the pit of my stomach. It's almost like being able to remember it.

The sadness of the Apollo 1 fire; even the shock at the ugliness of the images. The needless, but probably unforeseeable, loss of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffe. The wondering, at the time, were they 'burying the program along with their buddies', to paraphrase.

There's a shot in the movie, taken from long distance... I'm not sure exactly how... of one of the astronauts, standing on the grey of the Moon. Beyond him isn't the blackness of space, but more grey. As the camera pulls back, you are shown immense lunar mountains beyond him; then space. He becomes a tiny presence; one of only two inhabitants of the Moon... the camera pans away to the right, taking in the vista. If your jaw doesn't drop open when you see that... you're too cynical and jaded for me.

A profound moment (one of many) comes when Mike Collins tells us of orbiting the Moon while Neil and Buzz are on the surface. On the far side, out of touch with all the rest of us, he looked down at the Moon and knew... beyond it, was all of mankind, "plus two" on the near side of the Moon. And he, alone among all our kind, was on the outside. Him, and all the rest of the universe, whatever and whoever else. And how much he exalted in that knowledge. People feel sorry for Mike Collins because he didn't walk on the Moon... but clearly, he and all the six other CSM pilots have their own unique experiences.

I'm a bit disappointed that Neil Armstrong didn't participate. He was born in 1930. One day, all too soon... twenty or thirty years from now at most... it will not be possible for anyone to ask him, "What was it like? What frightened you? What moved you? What do you remember?" I wish this project had had his participation. But a couple of the astronauts, notably Buzz Aldrin and Alan Bean, expressed sympathy with Armstrong's position. He was the first... the first of our kind to touch another world. For that to be fate of the rest of your life must be a heavy burden... each of these men has been, almost literally, elevated to the status of a Greek or Roman god among us. But that name, Neil Armstrong, is the hardest of all to live up to. His self-imposed isolation is a regrettable, but understandable, outcome of all that came before. So rather than focus on my disappointment, I choose to celebrate the great gift of hearing the words and experiences of those astronauts who did sit before the camera, tell the stories, share the memories, and make that long-ago moment of excitement and amazement accessible to people like me, who did not really share in it at the time. And for all those who will come after them.

If we don't destroy ourselves in some mindless war, it is essentially inevitable that we will return to the Moon, and probably beyond. One day, a few centuries from now, going to the Moon, living on the Moon, may become commonplace, as life for Europeans in the New World became. I hope people then will be able to watch this movie, and ones like it, and recapture the wonder of what it was like when this was not ordinary, when this was not easy or to be taken for granted, when there was an elect few — two dozen, no more — given the privilege, responsibility, and honour of representing all who will set foot on other worlds forever after. Of all our kind, they were the first, the very first. No matter how long we exist or how far we may range, that will always be true.

See In the Shadow of the Moon.

No comments: