The metaphor that stuck with me after seeing the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon was the "daisy chain". Michael Collins, one of the Apollo astronauts, uses this term in describing his incredibly unlikely trip to the moon. He means that, to get into orbit, the astronauts had to sit on top of what amounted to a bomb; Atlas boosters were blowing up every day at Cape Canaveral. And the force of that bomb must be so controlled that an object something like a pencil must remain perfectly upright. Then, using computers far less powerful than the one I’m typing on right now, they had to plot a perfect vector to orbit the moon. In one sequence that’s among the film’s most thrilling, the Eagle, the gossamer lunar landing module, affords its pilot with only three minutes of fuel to find the perfect landing spot among all the craters, mountains, and rocks. Miss the landing, or use too much fuel, and the astronauts would have called the moon their home forever.
So there it is: the daisy chain. These guys thought the moon shot would work, but nobody really knew. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, in this case there could be no weak link, not among the astronauts or among the NASA engineers or their newly-designed equipment, nor in the thousands of decisions and operations that put men on the moon and brought them back safely. Any broken link in that long, long chain could have meant disaster.
In the Shadow of the Moon contains a good amount of privileged footage, some of it spectacular; I could have remained on the moon the entire film, watching the astronauts racing the rover around as the Earth rose above them. The film also contains a fair amount of talking heads, shot with the same stuffy camera setup. But then again: what talking heads they are! Only 24 people have gone that unimaginable distance to the moon, and every one of them still alive is interviewed here, save the reclusive Neil Armstrong. Their memory of those days is crystal clear, to a man. This was the event that defined the rest of their days; they aren’t likely to forget it.
So they tell us details that no book or film like The Right Stuff or film like Apollo 13 could ever get right, though feedback from those films has worked its way into the astronauts’ speech. Light flickers in their eyes as these former test pilots admit just how exciting it was to go that fast and that high. Some of them express guilt at having missed the Vietnam war. Every one of them displays a deep and genuine modesty, repeating they just felt lucky to be there. Getting men like these on record was a public service.
In the Shadow of the Moon is, in the very best sense, a patriotic film. When you see that enormous rocket lifting off, filling the screen with the letters "USA", you feel a sharp stab of pride. But by the film’s end, the astronauts are at great pains to say that this was not one country’s achievement, but an achievement for all human beings. Many of them are acutely concerned about global warming, and the fact that our big cities are now choked in a miasma of toxic gasses that are clearly visible from space pains them. In 2007, there’s a whole lot more blue on the globe, and a whole lot less white. And when the Astronauts speak of the three billion people who watched the moon landing on television, consider that the world population has doubled since then. Let that sink in a minute.
In the Shadow of the Moon is a great film for all but the youngest of kids. Tell them they have to pick up the ball back where we dropped it, making space a priority again. Let’s get a base built on the moon. Let’s go to Mars. As the writer Arthur C. Clarke was so fond of saying, "The Earth is too small a basket to hold all of humanity’s eggs." And tell them that stewardship of the Earth comes first; that the fragile jewel of our planet hanging in darkness is the most important image we human beings now have, and it should guide everything we do.