“We went to the moon because we were doing our job. I can only speak for me, but I got involved with the program because I wanted to know what was out there. At that point in history, our concept of the universe was “God in the heavens, man in the middle, and everything else below,” and that was about as sophisticated as the public concept of space was. For me personally the whole thing of ‘let’s go find out what’s out there, let’s go find out what it’s all about,’ and I’m sure most of us had the same motivation of discovery. Let’s go find out. Pioneer.”
Those are the words of Edgar Mitchell, former NASA Astronaut and pilot of the Apollo 14 lunar mission in January of 1971. He was part of the nine voyages American spacecraft made to the moon between 1968 and 1972. In the years since the US stopped sending manned missions to the moon, this period in history has been looked at from many angles. Some perceive this whole enterprise as being merely a spectacular bi-product of the Cold War and our frantic race to triumph over Russian ingenuity. While covering the story of the first moon landing in July of 1969 for LIFE magazine, Norman Mailer postulated that this triumph belonged to the WASP, who “had emerged from human history in order to take us to the stars.” Still others see this not as a triumph merely for the WASP or the United States, but for humanity as a whole, a symbol of what can be accomplished in the spirit of discovery.
It is this latter spirit that imbues the new documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, which tells the story of the Apollo program as seen through the eyes of those closest to it, with nary a trace of cynicism. The film presents new interviews with surviving crew members of every manned moon mission, and also utilizes a great deal of NASA footage, much of it being made available to the public for the first time. Presented by Ron Howard, who glorified the space program in his 1995 picture Apollo 13, “Moon” is directed by David Sington. Sington, who is British and feels this nationality gave him a more objective view, found that this was the perfect time to gather these men in front of the camera to tell their story.
“We were lucky with our timing,” said Sington. “As men in their 70s I think they’re perhaps ready to be more reflective. We get more reflective as we get older. This is something that Edgar Mitchell said to me, it may well be true, that it was such a profound experience that it actually took them decades to come to terms with it, understand it themselves so they could express what it really was.”
Making themselves happily available to promote the film were some of the actual Apollo astronauts, who we had the honor to talk to here in New York. First up is our chat with Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell. Aldrin was the Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 11, and is famous worldwide as being “the second man on the moon”, after Neil Armstrong (as well as a one-time guest star on “The Simpsons”). Since the Apollo 14 flight, Mitchell has become well known for his research into paranormal and psychic phenomenon.
Buzz Aldrin: I found the most uncomfortable, disturbing question coming back was “what’d it feel like?” To draw an analogy, we have voice recorders, we have video recorders, but so far we have not invented emotion recorders other than maybe a lie-detector test, and we don’t do that kind of measurement. Emotions and feelings. What does this open up? Coming back, and then when asked a feeling, manufacturing what you think they want to hear instead of accurately trying to remember what your feelings really were.
Edgar Mitchell: I agree with Buzz. One of the more disturbing questions we got repeatedly, “what’d it feel like to be on the moon?” and I realized very shortly I didn’t know what it felt like ’cause I was too busy thinking and doing to concentrate on feeling. In order to do that, I went to one of my dear friends in the psychological community, Dr. Jean Huston, and said, “Hey, help me do some hypnotic regression I get this question ‘what’d it feel like?’ and I wanna find out ’cause I don’t know!” I learned that mostly it was a sense of awe, of wonderment, of seeing something new, being able to try to relate it to everyday life, but again falling upon the reason I went there, to explore. To find something new. To discover. It was a wonderment of new discovery. That was really what my feelings were.
Aldrin: I didn’t particularly enjoy the aftermath of being on display and speaking and responding and doing things that I really didn’t feel, as kind of an introverted person, comfortable doing. When it came to the readjustments of the crew pecking order in Apollo, and because the lunar module wasn’t ready and other things, people got shifted around and Neil and I were in the backup crew for the first flight to orbit the moon. It was logical to skip two flights ’cause they had flights assigned, that we would be the crew of Apollo 11 and if the next two were successful we’d get the chance to land. I put this in the biography I wrote entitled “Return to Earth” not “Journey to the Moon”, it was “Return to Earth” ’cause that was the most challenging thing to me. In that book I mention that after we were announced as the crew in January of ’69 I went back and shared with my wife how wonderful it was but there was a little regret because it would be nice to be part of a later mission that would be doing more things and wouldn’t have to put up with all the celebrity status of being on the first landing. Honest Indian, you can ask her and you can read it in my book. Now does that sound like the person who was trying to be the first out the door? No. That was a position that I felt there were reasons why it could go one way or another. The training that was involved by the commander of the first landing was so intense that to relieve that in any way by assigning the lunar surface activities to someone else would be a more appropriate way. It was a hot potato during our training and nobody would make a decision, so I felt we needed to have a decision and I took steps to try and get that. I just want to make it clear to you people who communicate to the public that in no way did I feel let down by Neil being selected to be the first one out. I was relieved if anything, and in retrospect it just would have been unconscionable for the commander of the mission to have stayed up in the lunar module while the junior guy goes taking his big step for humankind.
CS: You’re certainly a pioneer. Do you have any advice for the astronauts of the future who will be the first to explore Mars and the unknowns they will face as you did?
Aldrin: There is no “Right Stuff” astronaut. There is none of us who fits a particular mold that anyone could describe. We all have really different backgrounds, personalities and strengths and frailties. If I were to project that into the future, most appropriately when you’re talking Mars, about long duration and establishing permanence at Mars, which means really long stays, maybe a career of leaving the Earth, is the compatibility of people, together. That may be our most serious obstacle to success, and I think the Russians have probably understood this better than we have. They have an “Institute of Biomedical Problems”, that’s what they call it. Characteristically, pilots in this country want to stay as far away as they can from the medical people, especially the shrinks, ’cause they can ground you and take away your flying career.
CS: So they’d ground you if you revealed any kind of anxiety issue?
Aldrin: The physical for the astronaut program, in general, was to see if NASA and the government could count on let’s say about 15 years of good service without you becoming unqualified. They were not looking for the A-Number-One physical specimen, or maximum coordination. They were really looking for stability. Now if a pilot exhibits some kind of tendency and he shares those innermost feelings with medical people, they may choose to decide “this guy isn’t fit to fly.” So you don’t find pilots sharing their innermost fears and concerns with the medical guys, especially the shrinks.
Mitchell: That’s true.
CS: Has that changed at NASA in the last decades?
Aldrin: I was asked in some way to respond to the USA editorial after the Lisa Norwak incident, and essentially I said from my experience when I ran into some troubles the Air Force was of some help, NASA was not. That was my experience. I felt in looking at present situations there is still inadequate oversight of the “Right Stuff” astronaut, who supposedly has the maturity to determine everything he aught to be doing. Do you know there’s no criteria for physical conditioning once you’re set as an astronaut? It’s all up to you. Do you know that there’s no written exam ever given to an astronaut after he is given training so the training people know how well he absorbed the training? Didn’t you find that to be the case?
Mitchell: Well that was one of the things that helped knock off the testing, frankly.
Aldrin: But the reason for that, initially, was the availability of records to the media. The media would like nothing better than to see NASA’s grades as to who’s gonna end up flying first in the Mercury program.
Mitchell: That part is correct too. The other part was we really had a consummate set of professionals.
Mitchell: Teach it to them they were gonna get it and go with it. So you didn’t really need to treat them like school kids.
Aldrin: Just to take the other side of that, when the tank blew up on Apollo 13 who had the answers to the problem? Did the crew onboard?
Mitchell: Of course not.
Aldrin: No, the people back home did. So who’s really in command of that spacecraft? The pilot from way back in history is gonna say “the command of that resides with the people inside the spacecraft.” Now, even the airlines are getting to the point where they’re in touch with airline back home. They’re being managed by air traffic control. They have less and less to say even about the technical conditions aboard the airline.
Mitchell: That’s obvious just because of the complexity of modern machinery you need experts. That’s what NASA had, the experts of particular systems were available to us. We called them “the backroom guys”, because they were in the back room with all the equipment and logbooks and schematics and everything when problems occurred. If we didn’t know how to handle it, they could dig through the records, Google it well they wouldn’t have Googled at that point and get answers we could not possibly get. That’s certainly true of airlines today, modern flight equipment is so damn technical.
Aldrin: Who onboard Apollo 11 knew what “1201” meant? (laughs)
Mitchell: Right, the failure code, fault code. Let me try a different perspective on this. My experience of the whole NASA effort, from the time I was at MIT under a NASA program, and worked with all the NASA guys, and then onto the MOL [Manned Orbital Laboratory] program, where I was technical director for a period of time the most devoted, dedicated group of people I ever worked with. So we’re talking about failure problems. Yeah we’re gonna have failures because you had new equipment, new situations, and we’re all human beings, but my God they did a marvelous job of resolving virtually everything that was a problem, and we trained on virtually every conceivable failure mode that we could really come up with and practice to see if we could get around it. Is that to say we got everything?
Aldrin: No no no! Most of the serious problems were so unusual that we didn’t train on precisely those.
CS: Do you still have dreams about the moon?
Aldrin: No, I never have. The character in my dreams is pathetic. He’s always getting into trouble and never realizes the oddball situation that character is in!
After seeing the film and talking to the above two astronauts, we had the chance to talk briefly with the director of In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington. Of all the questions we could think of, the most pressing was out of all the new footage and access to all these men like Mike Collins and Jim Lovell, what was the most interesting anecdote or piece of footage that did not make it into the documentary?
David Sington: The sequence that I most regretted losing was a sequence that talked about what these guys left on the moon. I thought that was very interesting. There’s a bit in the film where Alan Bean talks about how weird it was to be on a planet, effectively, and to be the only two people on this planet. Then he talks about how later, when he came back to Earth, he just wanted to watch people. A lot of them left very personal, almost ephemeral things on the moon. Charlie Duke left a photograph of his family, just a Polaroid snap which a friend had taken in his backyard of him and Dorothy and their two boys. He wrote on the back, “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from the planet Earth, we flew to the moon on such and such a date, we came in peace.” He just left that on the moon. Gene Cernan wrote his daughter’s initials in dust on the moon. There are various other little things like that the astronauts left behind. I always felt they were instinctively seeking to populate and humanize this sterile, dead, empty world with a bit of humanity. They didn’t just want to leave behind technology, bits of kit, but leave something deeply human behind. That speaks volumes about how human beings don’t just explore, we settle, we make it our own. We tame it. Sometimes, from an environmental point of view, you wish we didn’t tame it quite so much, like turning the wonderful west into suburbia. But that is part of what we want to do, we want to go out there and explore it, and then make it our own.
Speaking of Alan Bean and Charlie Duke, they were the next Apollo astronauts we got to talk to during the press day. Duke flew on the Apollo 16 mission in April of 1972, the fifth lunar landing, the activities of which included the first cosmic ray detector deployed on the lunar surface. Alan Bean flew on Apollo 12, and became the fourth man to walk on the moon. Since his retirement from NASA in 1981, Bean has devoted himself full-time to painting. His paintings are unique in that they are depictions of his actual experiences on the moon, some fanciful and some based on photographs. He sometimes uses actual moondust in his paintings (!) and these works of art are prized by many space enthusiasts. Like Aldrin and Mitchell, Bean and Duke proved very candid about their feelings regarding their space experiences, as well as being surprisingly vocal about the current state of affairs at NASA and its perception in the media.
CS: I want to ask a more nuts-and-bolts question. With the Orion Project coming up to revamp the shuttle program, a lot of it is recycling some of the technology from Apollo. It’s the same type of command module/service module arrangement. Has NASA consulted you about some of your experiences with the equipment to see whether those lessons can be applied in the future?
Charlie Duke: I was on a consulting team with Lockheed Martin on their design, which happened to win the competition. We spent a year listening to their design engineers and management talk about their design concepts. We had a lot of time to critique their design and give them suggestions, some they accepted and others they didn’t. I was very delighted to see them come back to an Apollo concept with launch escape systems and robust heat shields that would be used, parachute landings. That was what we were used to and it worked fine and hopefully it’ll work fine in the future.
Alan Bean: I think form follows function, so I think that’s why these look like large lunar modules ’cause they’ve gotta do the same job. We spent a lot of time back in Apollo trying to optimize the shapes to do this job. We’re getting ready to do this job again, so here they are but we want to carry more people and more weight and stay longer and those are the shapes that work. I don’t imagine that in the near future we’re going to see anything that’s vastly different from the other. There’s a lot of differences, for example the command module, but it isn’t called that anymore, is unmanned the whole time, worked from mission control and I think that’s wonderful. Fundamentally it looks the same, it’s got the same job to do. If they don’t get into orbit I bet it’s gotta go down unmanned and rendezvous with ‘em. You’d have to, ’cause it’s got to have a rescue capability.
CS: How does it feel to be talking about and publicizing these historic events nearly forty-years after the fact?
Duke: We volunteered for the space program for the sense of exploration and the sense of adventure. I was a test pilot! You know, I wanted the adventure of it all. Looking back now, I realize a film such as this can have an influence on so many of the new generation who weren’t even alive when we did it and hopefully inspire them and encourage them to aim high, as we say in the Air Force. I was proud to be part of Apollo. It was a humbling experience, but I as proud to have been a part of it and I want to encourage our nation to look on beyond Apollo and hopefully use our experience to point us back on that pathway of exploration which I think is in the human spirit.
Bean: I think most of the guys are that way, and most of the people who were taken had a sense of doing their duty. In those days our duty was to figure out how to get to the moon and get back. After that was over we had other duties, but as we get a little bit older we feel lucky enough to have been given this by taxpayers. “You can go to the moon, you’re the best qualified people to go, that’s why we’re sending you,” still we got to do it. So our duty has shifted over to try to do what Charlie says. So I think the guys here, none of us our getting paid, we’re here ’cause we think it’s worth doing. We’d like to see the next generation you know, over half the people on Earth weren’t alive during Apollo now, in ten more years maybe two-thirds. We’ll be gone in another twenty or thirty years, so if you’re gonna do your duty and try to pass on some of these things well you gotta do it. That’s what pissed me off so bad about these talks about drinking among astronauts. I was there 18 years, I never saw it, and I never heard of it as a rumor or anything else. It just didn’t happen, it just wouldn’t happen. The people that went to the moon, the people that are there [at NASA] now, they would not do that sort of thing. It’s not the Right Stuff. It’s not doing your duty. Not only that, but the other guys on the crew wouldn’t put up with it. If you were on the crew and some guy came and you smelled alcohol on his breath you would stop everything and you would get that guy thrown out of the astronaut core! You wouldn’t say, “Well, I’ll look over that, what the heck.” Do you agree with me?
Bean: It’s what makes me mad. They ridiculed these astronauts. We’re long gone, but they’re acting like these guys flying now don’t take things seriously and it’s not true. They would never do anything like that.
CS: You guys are probably more qualified to answer this than any other people on Earth: what considerations do you think we need to make, not just as a government but as a people, before we allow companies like Halliburton to mine the moon?
Duke: Well I think that’s gonna be a long ways away. From the very beginning the U.S. never, with the Space Treaty, never made any kind of claim on the moon. We came in peace for all mankind, we planted the U.S. flag there not because we were claiming this for the U.S. but to say that the U.S. is the ones that did it. You need to talk to Jack Schmidt, he has concepts of mining potential Helium 3 atom on the moon which has tremendous potential for new renewable energy resources. That might be something that a nation would do. To get the Halliburtons up there, I mean to me that’s not even a concept that would be conceivable. It’s just too far to bring back Uranium or Aluminum or whatever minerals are up there while we have an abundance of that on the Earth right now. There is a Space Treaty that says you’re not gonna do that, and whoever signed that is supposed to abide by that. We are a signatory.
Bean: I think one of the things that’s holding up manned space flight is we cannot find a way to make it profitable, so it has to be heavily subsidized by the government. That’s how we got to the moon, that’s how the space shuttle and the space station is up there now. I would welcome the chance if Halliburton said tomorrow, “We’re gonna go up there and mine Hydrogen 3 or Helium 3 or whatever the hell it is, and we’re gonna start our own space program and we’re gonna pay for it.” I’d say, “Get goin’, hurry up!” That would get things goin’ like the airlines did long long ago, but we haven’t found a way to make any money. I wish they would do it, anybody would do it, but I definitely agree with Charlie. That’s a long time off, ’cause it doesn’t look like there’s anything we can go up there for and make a profit, but if we did manned spaceflight would boom.
CS: Alan, can you elaborate further on the astronauts and the drinking, which report specifically was that?
Bean: It was about a month ago when a report came back from a panel that was formed by NASA, mostly flight surgeons, who made a report that said they heard from somebody they didn’t make recordings of interviews, but they heard from SOME PEOPLE that said there was records of astronauts drinking prior to flight, either in the P-38 or the space shuttle. They wanted to present that information, make it public, even though they didn’t know who did it, didn’t have anything. You can’t do that to a person, by the way, you get sued. I wish NASA would sue the sh*t out of that guy.
CS: What do you think of Mike Griffin [current chief of NASA]?
Bean: I liked him up until this. The fact that he didn’t stand up and say, “Look, I know these guys, we hired them.” Those people at NASA are dedicated. The best people in the world that are interested in space flight are at NASA trying to make it work. They are not about to do anything to jeopardize the fact that they wouldn’t be at their best. Nobody would put up with that for a second. The fact that he didn’t go up there and say that, that he just said, “We’ll look into it. They’re just human.” Well, we are just human, but you can be human and be dedicated. That was a bad deal. Are you married? Got any children? What if I said, “There’s this guy over here maybe, I’m not gonna tell you about it, but he says your wife was drinking and smoking when she was pregnant.” What would you say to me?
CS: Prove it.
Bean: I’d be stronger than that. I’d say, “F*ck you, buddy!” (laughs) “That’s not true. Whoever said that needs to get up here!” They made fun of these astronauts. I saw a political cartoon in the Huston paper the other day when they were thinkin’ about fixin’ that nick in the tile, and he showed two astronauts under the shuttle and they shoved bent beer cans into the crack. That is not a good thing to have in people’s head. I saw Jay Leno the other day, he had this thing the other day with back to school things. He had this shuttle model, unscrews the nose cap, and it’s a flask really. That’s because we didn’t react. Prove it! Now they’ve come back on page ten and said, “Well we investigated it and didn’t find any of this,” but nobody knows, nobody cares. That’s why I’m an artist and not head of NASA! (laughs) They’d have thrown my ass outta there a long time ago!
A big thanks to the folks at THINKFilm for allowing us to interview these four American heroes.