1968 was a horrible year. The Vietnam War was at its disastrous zenith, so despised by American voters that it drove Lyndon Johnson, elected four years earlier by a landslide, to refuse a re-election campaign. The battle for civil rights continued, and racial unrest stained our international reputation as the land of equality. Then in April, James Earl Ray gunned down Dr. Martin Luther King. In June, Sirhan Sirhan murdered anti-war, pro-civil rights presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. In August, the city of Chicago erupted into the officially designated 'police riot" at the Democratic National Convention where demonstrators derided police violence by chanting, 'The whole world's watching." It is the premise of David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon that the flight of Apollo 8 in December gave America a reason to feel good about itself again. In the Shadow of the Moon is the story of the three-man Apollo missions which began in 1967 and by 1972 had succeeded in allowing 12 Americans to land, walk and even drive about on the surface of the moon. The film is narrated by many of the lunar astronauts themselves and includes wonderful full-color film of events that were broadcast to much of the world on black-and-white televisions. The missions that attracted the greatest attention were those in December 1968, when Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders circled the moon and sent back Christmas Eve televised images of the gorgeous blue Earth as seen from 240,000 miles in space, and in July 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface. Most people alive at the time who had access to a TV set will recall their own circumstances when these two remarkable feats took place. As Apollo 11 Module Commander Michael Collins puts it in the film, that's when the whole world really was watching.
In the Shadow of the Moon quickly chronicles the early days of the American space program after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in October 1957. America's initial rockets blew up on the ground more often than they soared beyond the clouds. For many years to come, America ran second to the Russians in the space race. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in 1961, a month before NASA managed to put Alan Shepard into a suborbital flight of only 15 minutes duration and nearly a year before John Glenn finally achieved an orbiting American flight in 1962. Nonetheless, only 20 days after Shepard's initial flight, President John F. Kennedy publicly challenged NASA to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The film notes Shepard's hop into space but otherwise devotes scant attention to the original Mercury flights and makes no mention of the Gemini missions which preceded the Apollo program. The picture does provide coverage of the fatal failure of Apollo 1 when Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a flash fire while training in their space module only days before the first Apollo flight in January 1967. But director Sington's clear objective is to celebrate rather than elucidate, and thus he rushes past the negative in pursuit of the positive, of which, obviously, there is plenty. It's a pleasure to see such important figures as Aldrin, Collins and Lovell talk about their unique experiences. It is stirring to see the emotion and devotion of all the astronauts who testify. And in this day of global peril from worldwide climate change, it's powerfully affecting to hear Collins speak of his feelings about Earth's fragility.
But we can't help yearning to hear from the three most important astronauts in our history, none of whom appear as first-person witnesses. Shepard died in 1998 at age 75, and thus could not participate in the same way as the others we see. But one wishes that Sington had found old interviews with him to include because he was such a robust figure, not only our first man in space but later the crew member on Apollo 14 who snuck a 6-iron on board and used it in low lunar gravity to whack the longest golf shot in history. Never as colorful as Shepard, Glenn and Armstrong were even greater heroes to the American public, and both are still alive. But they are regrettably absent, too.
Comparably, Sington does a good job early on setting the space race in the proper perspective of Cold War politics. But he skims over the troubling ways in which our space heroes were to some degree pawns. The film does not examine the extent to which Shepard's 1961 flight was a hasty and dangerous response to Gagarin's orbit a month earlier, a move perhaps dictated more by political motives rather than by scientific readiness. We do learn in the film of a rumor that the Russians hoped to scoop Apollo 8 by sending a team of cosmonauts to circle the moon ahead of us, and that in response NASA planned to ask Borman, et. al., to attempt a lunar landing a half-year before the science was fully ready. Thank goodness for all concerned that the rumor was false and thus our response was never made operational.
In the end, Sington never makes clear what the Russian space program is up to, either in 1968 or, in fact, for all the years after Gagarin's flight. That's too bad, because the world was watching the space race of the '60s and somewhere along the way the U.S. surged ahead, and enjoyable as it is, In the Shadow of the Moon misses a significant trick by not attempting to tell us when this happened, how and why.
- In the Shadow of the Moon celebrates the triumphs of the American space program, but leaves out some key crucial background.