Apollo 11 Highlights Human Capacity for Technical Achievement
July 21st marks the 50th anniversary of the first human step onto the Earth’s moon. Millennials — those born after 1981 — and the post-Space Shuttle GenZ generations may never fully appreciate the accomplishment. Fortunately, the documentary film Apollo 11 can get them pretty close while also reminding Baby Boomers and GenXers just how stunning and risky this technological achievement was in 1969.
Released commercially in March, Apollo 11 is an achievement in filmmaking in its own right. Rather than use voice-overs, narration, or contemporary interviews, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller and his colleagues reach deep into recently released video and audio archives to bring audiences into NASA’s control rooms at Cape Canaveral (Florida) and Houston. The older video footage was translated into high-resolution digital formats to provide a realism often not seen or experienced in historical documentaries. These artistic choices allow the movie to meet contemporary expectations and sensibilities and draw out the drama of the events as they unfold. Indeed, at moments, the audience will be hard pressed to recognize they are watching decades-old footage.
More captivatingly, Miller’s “direct cinema” approach transports audiences from being distant third-party spectators to something closer to being an eye-witness to the actual events. The news reporting creates the tension in an unfolding story by contrasting the professionalism of the engineers and mission managers with the non-technical perceptions of the lay public and journalists (and audience).
Apollo 11, however, is mostly a tribute to the technology and the personal sacrifices made to advance a largely political interest and goal. What is not explored is the social context for the Apollo missions. In fact, most Americans never supported the space mission although they recognized (and were proud of) the achievement.
The 1960s were turbulent years for the United States. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The nation was at the peak of a two-decade undeclared war in Vietnam War that would kill nearly 60,000 Americans and wound 300,000 more. Race Riots rocked dozens of US cities. In fact, as Apollo 11 was set to take off from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida (near Cape Canaveral), a crowd stood outside the gates to protest American inequality and racial segregation. The Cold War was also in full swing as the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese used the globe as their military playing field. This was the hook that Kennedy used to launch the Apollo program and his now famous “race to the moon.”
The cost of the program, however, was enormous, and the public always cast a skeptical eye at the program and federal priorities. Proof of the space program’s fickle popular support was evident in how quickly the federal funding collapsed for the initiative after the moon landing. Congress ratcheted down spending for the program through the mid- and late- 1970s, repurposed the program toward more practical purposes (orbital flights) in the 1980s, and shifted its reliance to private providers for shouldering the financial and technological risks in the 2000s.
More skeptical views on the Apollo program can be found in several places, including Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s well-regarded (and balanced) book, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989). Sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote perhaps one of the earliest and most trenchant critiques of the program in Moondoggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race (Doubleday 1964). An interesting history of private efforts to promote space exploration can also be found in Alexander MacDonald’s The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2017).
Thus, most viewers are likely to benefit most by viewing the documentary Apollo 11 for what it is: a tribute to human sacrifice, ingenuity, and technical achievement. Whether the program was worth the cost, in dollars spent or shifting in national policy priorities, might be better served through more holistic analyses.