It’s not every day that five of the astronauts who walked on the moon and Stephen Colbert are seen chilling in the same room, but that was the scene at the New York premiere of In the Shadow of the Moon, held at the Hayden Planetarium last week. The documentary, directed by David Sington (not Ron Howard, despite the prominent placement of his name in every poster), follows the unfolding of the Apollo missions and the men who made that pipe dream possible. Gathering together for the first time 10 of the 11 living members of the moon-bound missions (the notoriously reclusive Neil Armstrong opted out), the film describes the wholly unique shared experiences of “the only people to have been to another world.”
Once the pre-screening, red-carpet surge was through (Buzz Aldrin was a particularly popular target), the premiere was surprisingly hushed. Gasps came at the appropriate moments-during, for instance, a clip of Nixon reading a contingency speech that would be aired should the first lunar module fail to lift off the moon: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” Applause, too, when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed successfully. But mostly there was quiet as the impossible odds piled up: Here are the men with miles of paper and wood models in front of them; here they are with their lander that looks as though a gust of wind could snap it in two; here, the spacesuits scarily flimsy. To upbeat music, a snappy montage of spacecraft blowing up flashes across the screen. “At that point,” laughs Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, “boosters were blowing up every other day at Cape Canaveral.”
“To me, it’s very difficult to explain,” Charlie Duke, the lunar-module pilot of Apollo 16, told PopSci before the screening. “It’s such a unique experience, there’s nothing we can compare it to down here.” Apollo 12 lunar-module pilot Alan Bean added, “You’re so far away from home. Your neck’s out there. You’re betting your life on this hardware.” He paused. “But it’s a lot of fun if you’re willing to take that risk.” Onscreen, the men struggle no less to describe the feeling. Their own footage, unearthed from NASA’s liquid-nitrogen-cooled archives, lends depth. We see their first shots of Earth from above, hear their disbelieving, awed laughs.
After the screening, the astronauts took a bow. Their wives joined them onstage. Standing ovations ushered them off. And then the men who had walked on the moon and the people who could only dream about such stuff shuffled out to down martinis and space food beneath some plastic models of the universe.
**For photos from the premiere and of the astronauts then and now, launch the slideshow here.