“Eagle, Houston. You are go for landing, over.”
With this command, issued by Mission Control Center on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts were one step closer to achieving their goal of reaching the Sea of Tranquility. But this destination—218,000 miles away—was the culmination of a decade’s worth of countless tests, man-hours and effort.
The 50th anniversary of NASA’s most celebrated mission, the Lunar Landing, has spawned a slew of new documentaries this year. Among these are Apollo 11 by Todd Douglas Miller (CNN Films) and Chasing the Moon (PBS, American Experience), a three-part, six-hour series by Robert Stone.
Although they cover the same event, the films have a contextually different approach. Apollo 11 focuses solely on the nine-day mission, whereas Chasing the Moon starts from the early days of the space race, from the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 to the last lunar mission in 1972.
Documentary spoke to the two directors about their respective films.
From the opening scene Miller’s Apollo 11, where the crawler, a gargantuan, 10,000-square-foot machine on tank treads, glacially moves the platform with the Saturn 5 rocket to its launch site, it is abundantly clear what a massive undertaking, both literally and figuratively, the lunar mission was. The movie—which premiered in IMAX theaters in April and on CNN in June, with an encore airing slated for July 20—covers the mission from launch to re-entry, with pristine, previously unseen 70mm footage. The story is told from the perspectives of the astronauts and the team at Mission Control, with occasional glimpses of the millions of spectators on the ground. The detail in this high-definition footage is so precise that in a scene at the VIP launch viewing site, you can spot among the spectators Johnny Carson and Isaac Asimov, and as the rocket takes off, it is reflected in the sunglasses of the onlookers.
Miller recounts how the project began: “We actually made a short film about Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, that was contracted with CNN Films, and in the course of working on that film, we were exposed to this network of archivists and the massive vaults at the National Archives. CNN Films had reached out and was curious if we wanted to do a moon-landing film.
“We wanted to make a film—we were all space nerds ourselves—that we were going to be happy with, and that was very important to me personally as a director, for it to be as accurate as humanly possible.”
With that in mind, Miller continues, “We wanted to know every single piece of film that was Apollo 11-related, so that started a very long process of research not only with our archive team but working with NASA and the National Archives. What started out as a simple editing exercise—Could we tell the entire story of the mission using only archival materials?—turned into a cooperative effort by an international team of experts.”
The research resulted in an incredible find of previously unprinted negatives. Miller explains, “About three months into it we received an email from one of the supervisory archivists, Dan Rooney at National Archives, that alerted us to a large-format collection that had been preserved for 50 years in cold storage. There were hundreds of reels from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Those reels were primarily engineering reels, 70mm, commonly referred to a military grade-one film. And that was slow-motion, 600, 800, 1200 frames-per-second shot of the launch.
“We didn't know how extraordinary that was until we actually did some test scanning,” Miller notes. “Our post house, Final Frame, was deploying some new technology, and developed a prototype scanner specifically for this project. One of the first test reels that we had scanned was the suiting-up shots the day of the launch. The quality just jumped out at you. It was kind of an emotional moment in the room when we finally got it digitized and we could put it up on the big screen and look at it. We just all sat silent for a long time.
“It was the look on the astronaut’s faces and that really got me,” Miller admits. “It really didn't hit me how emotional it must have been for them, until we got another reel that was from a couple days before, where they'd done a dry run: They got suited up in the pressure suits, got in the astro-van, drove the eight miles out to the pad, got in the elevator, went in, and sat on top of the rocket.
“The only difference is, they got out, went down the elevator and went home,” Miller continues. “In that footage, they're kind of joking around, but you juxtapose that with the day of the launch and there's this stoic, almost solemn kind of atmosphere and you just see the way that their faces look. You just know that the weight of the world, the weight of all of us, sat on their shoulders.”
The scope of the documentary had now changed. “This added another dimension to the project: It was more than just a film now; it was an opportunity to curate and preserve this priceless historical material,” Miller contends.
In addition to the newly discovered trove of footage, the filmmakers also accessed more than 18,000 hours of un-catalogued mission audio recordings, of which 11,000 were directly related to Apollo 11. “In Mission Control you have 30 flight controllers,” Miller explains. “Every one that had a headset on was recorded onto an individual loop—we call it the 30 track. It's known at NASA as historical voice recordings. But there's also a backroom of an additional 30 tracks, so we could have 60 tracks at any given point during the nine days of the mission.”
Fortunately, a speech recognition project, led by sound engineers at University of Texas at Dallas, had laboriously digitized all those tapes. The files were then restored by Ben Feist, a hobbyist space program historian who runs the website Apollo17.org on the side. Armed with synched audio, Miller was able to convey the story in the present tense.
Dealing with so much archival footage is an unusual problem to have for a documentarian, but Miller concedes, “Footage-wise we had around a petabyte [million gygabites] of data…Our first order of business from the get-go was to look at those nine days and actually make a nine-day version of the film and whittle it down.”
The result: 50-year-old footage—and some of the most famous scenes ever shot—feels entirely new. By avoiding narration and talking heads, and relying solely on audio from the capsule and Mission Control, the film is pure cinema vérité, and Miller gives the impression of a live event unfurling in the present. With this fully immersive experience, even though as viewers we are aware of the final outcome, the film is incredibly suspenseful.
What is most striking is how many complicated sequences had to work seamlessly to ensure a successful mission: each step had the inherent potential for a problem, with a tragic catastrophe possibly imminent in so many instances. Mere minutes prior to the landing, a tense moment occurs when a 1202 alarm reading goes off on the guidance computer, only to be later followed by a second alarm reading 1201. With fuel running precariously low, along with the possibility of aborting the landing altogether, Mission Control had to rapidly ascertain the meaning of those error codes and give the Eagle permission to land.
“Purely from a project management standpoint, it's almost mind-boggling,” Miller exclaims. “Thousands of people spread across tens of thousands of companies, all focused on putting the first humans on another world.”
The film also places the mission within the historical context of the time. “A couple of days before the actual landing, Ted Kennedy and the incident at Chappaquiddick happened, and the flight controllers were talking about it,” Miller explains. “It dominated the news and kicked out Apollo for a day or so. That’s what we tried to reinforce with the film, that there were other things happening as well.”
“These monumental things like launching a Saturn 5 rocket, going to the moon, these scientific feats of exploration had a galvanizing effect,” Miller maintains. “They can unite people in a way that nothing else does. I'm an optimist. I hope that we can do something great like that again.”
Equally impressive an undertaking is Robert Stone’s six-hour Chasing the Moon, a meticulously researched and comprehensive retelling of the US space program, beginning from the early days of the space race, pitting Wernher Von Braun’s cadre of German-born rocket scientists against the Soviets, ending with the dismantling of the Apollo program. The three-part series recasts the Space Age as a combustive mixture of scientific innovation and political calculation, media spectacle and public-relations maneuvers, with a heady dose of personal drama.
The in-depth series was “a five-year labor of love” for Stone. “I started working on it in 2015,” he recalls. “This is a film that I wanted to make for a very, very, very long time. I had made a much shorter film about the early days of the space race about 30 years ago, and it was a subject that I had just always wanted to return to. And I knew there was a ton of archival material that had never really been tapped into. There have been so many documentaries that have been made about this—and some of them are very good—but none of the films that I'd seen ever really captured what I remember it being like to grow up in a time when we were leaving the earth for the first time, and what it was like for us. I think the astronaut experience has been covered pretty well, but the experience for all of us here on earth had kind of been forgotten.”
The series also relies solely on archival footage, does not use narration and features audio-only interviews with astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman and Bill Anders, as well as leading rocket engineer Sergei Khrushchev (son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev) with the Soviet viewpoint, and many more.
“I've never used a narrator; that's just not my thing,” Stone explains. “I recorded all original interviews. The only exception was the interview with Mike Collins [the Apollo 11 command module pilot]. That was a NASA oral history; he doesn’t give too many interviews these days. Right from the get-go, I knew that I didn’t want to use talking heads in this film. I didn’t want that kind of seesawing back between present and past. I wanted the film to be timeless and fully immersive.”
Hence, Stone’s interviews were audio only. “I got things out of the astronauts I interviewed—who have been interviewed countless times—that they haven't said to other people, and it was a much more relaxed situation; they didn’t feel like they were performing. There are a lot of advantages to not going in there with lights, cameras and a crew. I would just sit with them in their living room, or wherever it was, and it was just a casual conversation. I got one of the last interviews Buzz Aldrin ever gave about Apollo. I think it's the longest interview he ever gave. I spent eight hours with him just in his apartment.”
In terms of unearthing all the archival footage spanning the period the series covers, Stone admits, “This was done with a ridiculously small team. I tend to do a lot of my own research; to me research is like shooting.”
But successful research brought a new set of challenges. “I've been making a lot of archival films and you're always struggling for more footage,” Stone explains. “In this case, there was too much footage. At NASA, every time they would tighten a bolt they would pull out a 16-millimeter camera and film it. So the NASA footage alone was just ridiculous. And then we had all the networks filming everything. I think we sourced nearly 100 different archives.”
As for the choice of whom to interview, Stone states, “Casting a film is probably the most important decision you make as a filmmaker, whether you're making dramatic films or documentaries. And I tend to like to keep the cast small and tight so that it's a personal story, and will flow like a dramatic film flows. So, it's not just a Greek chorus providing information where the subject becomes the main character. I wanted to limit it so you'd follow these characters over the course of the story, and get to know them.”
With regard to securing the Soviet perspective on the space race, Stone recalls, “I had interviewed Sergei Khrushchev for another documentary I had done a number of years ago. I knew that he had a lot to say about the space program, and that he was by his father's side through that entire period of time and that he was also a leading Soviet rocket engineer in his own right. It's kind of surprising he had never really been tapped for a documentary about the space program; his insights are really kind of remarkable. I knew when I first started this film that he was going to be my voice covering that aspect of the story.”
Tackling a complex subject in the edit room was no easy task. “The first thing I did was edit the interviews one by one to what I thought were the core elements of the story. I originally conceived this as a two-hour film, then it became a four-hour film, then a six-hour film. Fortunately, PBS gave me the latitude to let this film grow. But I had never done a six-hour film. The idea of doing that was totally terrifying to me, but once I got into it, it was a real liberation.”
“One of the challenges in making a film like this is keeping focus, but also being open to surprises when they come along,” Stone contends. “I knew the basic plot points, but it was full of surprises of footage that I never imagined that I'd ever get my hands on, that led to entirely new scenes that I couldn’t have foreseen. One of the best examples of that is the footage of the astronauts’ wives during the launch of Apollo 8. That was just a stack of 35-millimeter cans of film that had been stored in Frank Borman’s closet for 50 years. And he gave it to me.”
Stone does not shy away from showing the human cost and sacrifice of participating in the astronaut program. The shocking deaths of Apollo 1 crewmembers Gus Grisson, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a flash fire during a simulated launch countdown are handled very movingly. Yet the ripple effect it had on families is clearly visible a year later, on the tense and anxious face of Frank Borman’s wife during his launch.
“I think the real biggest misconception of the space program is its inevitability,” Stone maintains. “There's this retelling of the story, that Kennedy makes this great speech, money is appropriated, NASA goes and builds this rocket, tests things out, and they go to the moon, and what a great thing it was. The story is so much different than that, and much more complicated, and there are so many twists and turns, and so many points along the way in which the whole thing could've fallen apart. The struggle to maintain congressional support and public support was extremely difficult and tenuous.”
The series also has a companion book. “Obviously what I wanted to do with the movie was very visual, and in fact, I think the visuals are the story,” Stone contends. “This was a war of visual imagery between the United States and the Soviet Union in many ways. And the way that imagery was broadcast and absorbed by the general public, and the live television broadcast of them walking on the moon—that is the story. But there's another story we told that seemed to be better suited to a book. Even a six-hour movie can only contain so much.”
Stone acknowledges, “I didn’t want just this film to be a nostalgic look back at history, but something that really will resonate for young people today who have their own desires to be part of something bold and audacious. Ultimately the lesson of Apollo is that it’s as much a political effort as it is a technical challenge.
“The message of this story is that we can accomplish anything that we set our minds to, particularly technological problems, as long as we have the leadership that's going to point us in the direction. One of the reasons this anniversary is getting so much attention is that people are really hungry to be part of something that's bigger than themselves, and to be inspired.”
Chasing the Moon premieres July 8-10 on PBS’ American Experience. Apollo 11, which premiered June 23 on CNN, returns for an encore airing on July 20.