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Emotions recalled in the Sea of Tranquility

Last night I saw a preview of the In the Shadow of the Moon, the new feature-length documentary about the Apollo moon landings. I admit it: I'm a space buff. But I think the movie will appeal even to people who aren't. Its innovation is to explore the emotions of the astronauts, recalled after nearly four decades of reflection.

What emerges defies the stereotype of laconic test-pilot jocks. Here was a group of men, chosen for grace under pressure, who were profoundly moved by their experiences. You feel they could be your own grandfathers, with all their warmth and idiosyncrasies. The filmmaker, David Sington, captures them with a simple style of documentary filmmaking, a perfect antidote to the age of irony: no computer graphics, no opinionated or golly-gee-whiz narration -- just the astronauts, in their own words, and the NASA footage, unadorned.

Today I sat in on a series of roundtable interviews with Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11;), Alan Bean (12;), Edgar Mitchell (14;), and Charlie Duke (16;). What a pleasure to meet people who are humbled by their celebrity and can never quite get over the fact anyone cares what they did. Mitchell said he welcomed the opportunity the film gave him to rethink what the events meant to him: "I was too busy at the time to think about how I felt." Aldrin says that dealing with emotions will be one of the great challenges of the space program as it plans to set up long-term bases on the moon and eventually Mars: "The compatibility of people together may be our most serious obstacle to success."

To be sure, the film had its weak points. It neglects the engineers and other behind-the-scenes guys who made the mission possible, and whose depiction I think was the great strength of Ron Howard's Apollo 13 film. The close-up shots of the astronauts' faces are charming at first, but by the umpteenth time I found them a little tiresome. There's also an awkward beat when John Young claims Gus Grissom said he was afraid to complain about poor wiring in the Apollo 1 capsule, for fear the agency would retaliate. It was this wiring that killed Grissom and his crewmates in a fire on January 27, 1967. The film doesn't go anywhere with Young's remark, leaving the audience not knowing what to think. Was there a conspiracy? Were NASA officials any less dedicated and human than the astronauts themselves?

Update (September 6): New Scientist's special space issue has a rather more sympathetic portrayal of NASA officials.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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