Saturday, February 16, 2008

One small step for a giant leap for Whitey On The Moon. In The Shadow Of The Moon, out now. (*********9/10)

In The Shadow Of The Moon is a documentary, out now, about the Apollo 11 mission that landed a man on the moon for the first time. And while I still agree with Gil Scott-Heron, that perhaps the whole excercise was unnecessary - I mean, what did these guys do that a remote-control drone couldn't do? It is still an awe-inspiring feat, all these years later. Although I was not alive when all this drama was taking place, I still felt a small child's wonder when I watched this film. When I was a kid in Grade Four at McNabb public school, the teachers liked to encourage our creativity, and every week we would do something called "learning centres", where we would study one particular subject in small groups. The class was basically from Grades one through four, and everyone would participate. Each group would choose their own project, centred around the larger theme, and at the end of the day each Friday we would present our small group's findings to the class. One such learning centre was on Outer Space.

It was January, 1986, and the reason we were doing this group project on Outer Space that week was that there was to be a shuttle launch that week. The class (and teachers) were very excited, because the Challenger would be taking a teacher with them, in the first teacher-in-space program. We were ready to gather around the TV in school and watch the launch as a class, having just completed our projects on outer space. However, the launch was delayed. We were unable to watch, and a few days later, we were gathered around the television again. Again, the shuttle lauch was delayed. I don't know if my life would have changed, as a nine-year-old watching this with my class, had we ever seen the actual launch in 1986 of the Challenger. Had the launch not been pushed back so far that we all ended up missing it, and were not watching live with our class when the Challenger was launched, and 73 seconds later was consumed in a ball of fire, taking seven crew members with it, including the first teacher in space.

These are the dangers faced by the astronauts who went up there. These are people who must ignore the danger inherent in any attempt to reach a new high for humankind. Is that all one word? Humankind? My blog doesn't have spellcheck. Anyway, the 1969 Neil Armstrong first step on the moon is something we have all seen hundreds if not thousands of times, whether we were alive at the time or not. We no longer televise launches, at least not that I have seen, and it no longer captures the imagination of the world the way it once did. But at that time, in 1969, in that place, it was an event over which the entire world came together. And hearing the astronauts tell their story is wonderful. Many things I did not know - the many failed attempts just to get a rocket launched before the actual Apollo 11 moon mission, and the fact that the entire crew that was originally scheduled to go died. On a training run at NASA, a spark set off a fire that burned the entire crew alive. The crew that ended up actually going to the moon were the replacement crew.

All this is interesting, and tragic, but where In The Shadow of the Moon really takes off is when the astronauts get to the rocket for the launch. The reverential way they still speak about it is fascinating, and each one has a personality that is engaging in a totally different way. Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Alan Bean, James Lovell and Edgar Mitchell remain the only people alive who have been to the moon, of the 24 people who have undertaken that journey in history. They each reminisce about their trips, their experiences, and the sense of wonder upon looking back at the Earth and seeing it alone there, suspended in space. The astronauts who have gone on moon missions remain the only people ever to see the Earth in this context. For some, it was a religious experience, for others, it was bigger than religion, but for each of them it was something that connected them in a very real way to all of their fellow men. The reaction of the rest of the world to this achievement is shown in the film, and that too is inspiring.

In The Shadow of the Moon is more a celebration of humanity than it is a straight-forward story about some men and a spaceship. It is inspirational, educational, and breathtaking. I highly recommend watching this documentary with your kids, because whatever mystique has gone out of the space program and NASA in the intervening years is recaptured brilliantly in this movie. And wouldn't you rather have your kids aspiring to be astronauts than rappers?

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