A Conversation with Historical Consultant Robert Pearlman
What is groundbreaking about this film?
ROBERT PEARLMAN: A lot of works have been made about Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon, but what sets this film apart is the fact that this is history being made again —new footage that was previously unknown has been expertly restored and scanned at the highest resolution possible, presenting never-before-seen footage from what many consider the crowning achievement of humankind to date. We’re able for the first time in history to get new glimpses and new information about how we landed men on the moon.
What makes the images in Apollo 11so special?
The original source material was 70MM, which is the widest-format film you’re going to find.The detail that’s brought out is considerable —for example, there’s a scene capturing the astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) suiting up for the mission. We knew that scene was filmed, but when it was shown to the public, it had been cropped to 35MM in order to match the other film that was available. Many scenes like this have been expanded to a widescreen view, and we see them in high-definition for the first time. For the viewing public, this means a more visceral, you-are-there feeling, including being in the room with the astronauts as they’re getting ready that July morning. For historians, it’s an opportunity to see the whole layout of what was happening that day, featuring details that weren’t previously available. Why have we not been able to see this footage all these years?RP: The fact that these new reels were discovered by coincidence sitting in the National Archives so close to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing makes for a wonderful discovery, giving us the ability to celebrate it properly.
Originally NASA held the footage in a storage facility but over the years it was transferred to the National Archives, where it was more or less forgotten. Some of the footage was prepared for a documentary released in the 1970s, but once again the footage was cropped. This is the raw footage as it was originally taken, and since NASA didn’t have the funds or interest to produce more material, it sat unused. Fifty years later, the possibility of finding footage we’ve never seen before is becoming more and more rare, if not impossible. Because it’s such a famous, iconic event in history, one would think that all footage that was ever to be seen from it would have already been discovered. The audio is as powerful in the movie as the images.
What has been improved in this regard?
RP: The audio footage is something we knew existed —it had not been lost to the years like some of the images —but we’ve only had access to it recently. When the astronauts went to the moon, there were several different tracks of audio, including the space-to ground audio, or the voice of the astronauts being broadcast to the ground, and the singular voice of the representative from Mission Control being transmitted back up to the astronauts. There were other tracks that were known to exist which had not been released to the public, including the flight director’s loop, featuring all the voices from Mission Control consoles talking to him. In addition, there was footage of the astronaut’s voices from space as well as the back-room audio loops coming from Mission Support. NASA made hours of this audio available, and what this film team has done is sort through that audio, re-mastering it and synching it up with available film footage. For the first time, you can watch flight controllers speaking from Mission Control and actually hear what they’re saying because the audio has been meticulously synched with the corresponding moment in time.
There’s spectacular footage of average Americans watching the launch from parking lots and Florida beaches —who shot this footage?
RP: A film team from NASA captured the estimated one million people who showed up for the launch, the most people ever to show up for an event like this. This was the same film team that was documenting the astronauts preparing for the launch, for a project named Moonwalk One. This crew filmed nearby beaches, parking lots and well as the VIP and press viewing area. While this footage had been previously released, it was cropped, sometimes dramatically, so we’re seeing a much wider view than ever before —we have a fuller record of what was filmed, in the widest format and highest definition possible. We can see more details than ever before. For example, in a scene at the VIP viewing site, you can spot people like Johnny Carson and the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov among the spectators. Watching the crowds outside J.C.Penney and along the beaches, you can see how people dressed at the time, what cars they drove. You can even see the reflection of the launch in the sunglasses of spectators as they watch it take off.The colors are extraordinary in these scenes —it looks like vintage Kodachrome.RP: You experience a tremendous mix of feelings watching these scenes, which are almost hyper-real. In one sense you know you’re watching footage that’s 50 years old —it exudes that sense of age and time —but what’s most striking is how state-of-the-art it looks, like it was shot with the highest-quality camera you can find today. We all know how the launch sequence is going to turn out —we know going in that they will make it to the moon and back —but you’re on the edge of your seat all over again because it looks and feels like a live event unfurling in the present. It feels like something entirely new, even though this is some of the most famous historical footage ever recorded.
The centerpiece of this movie is the moon landing, and the moonwalk —is there anything new we’re seeing for the first time?
RP: We’re seeing these scenes presented in a new way. The space footage is not new, but it was treated like the rest of the film —scanned at the highest resolution possible and placed into the context of a movie that draws you forward through existing archival footage, not through someone looking back and describing how it occurred. A lot of documentaries have depicted the moon landing and the moonwalk using narration or talking heads —contemporary commentary, which frames the footage so it feels like you’re watching history. Because this film is cinema vérité, you’re watching archival material telling the story itself in an approximation of real time —the sensation is like watching it unfold for the first time. As a NASA historian, what in your opinion are the most exciting features of this movie?RP: Having worked with a lot of filmmakers over the years on various projects, I’ve had to take people to task before on claims of never-before-seen footage —maybe the general public hasn’t seen the footage, but plenty of others have. For the first time, this is bona fide footage that we have not seen before, so the discovery alone was exciting. Add to that the latest in film technology, the ability to present this footage in high resolution, and large format, which looks amazing on the big screen and almost beyond belief on in a large-format presentation. Simply being able to bring the mission back to life and see it on a scale this huge is probably the most exciting factor for me.
What are some of the scenes you are seeing for the first time?
RP: Scanning the rows inside the launch control center, being inside the suit-up room with the astronauts, getting a wider and more audible perspective of Mission. Control during the launch, and being on board the U.S.S. Hornet (the recovery ship) as the astronauts returned from the mission —you can even spot Nixon in the crowd here. We have photographic documentation from these aspects of the mission, and other 16MM film taken from different vantage points, but the fact that we’re seeing this from a new perspective, with new details to catch in a much wider frame, with clearer resolution —these are the moments you long for in a movie like this. This mission was well documented but now you have the opportunity to pick out details that tell a whole new story.
Why was the Apollo 11 launch so important in a historical context?
RP: The race to the moon unfolded in what was a perfect storm of events in the late 1960s —if all those events did not occur, we probably would never have reached the moon. We didn’t go because we were scientifically interested in the moon —we went because we were in a cold war with the Soviet Union and it was a testament of our technological prowess that we could send someone to the moon; it might have unfolded differently if this happened during peacetime. This was the crowning achievement of a race between two world powers fighting each other in a way that no one was actually hurt. From a cultural standpoint, the moon has been a symbol of many different things to people throughout humanity, it has always been that unreachable world and we’re fueled by the notion that if we can send a man to the moon, we can do anything. In the time frame that it occurred, even with the backdrop of the Cold War, we also might not even have gotten there were not for the very unfortunate assassination of John F. Kennedy, who was not a huge fan of going to the moon. He saw it as a political need in order to beat theRussians. Almost from the point he announced the space race, he was working behind the scenes to try and find a way out of it, even asking the Soviets to partner with us.
When he was assassinated it became the vision and goal of a fallen hero, and it was untouchable from a political standpoint because it would have been seen as stomping on the legacy of a slain president. This was the culmination of a goal set out by someone that Americans, and the world, looked up to. If anything is going to be remembered about the 20th Century, it’s going to be the fact that we took our first steps on another celestial body —because this is the future of humanity, the promise of going further. Apollo 11 was only the first step.
Fifty years on, where do we stand in terms of the space program?
RP: We’ve changed focus. Our original visions of how to go into space were not to go directly to the moon, it had to do with what came later, which was to establish a space shuttle and space station, then establish ourselves in orbit and go out even further. But a confluence of events changed our priorities. We haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, after the sixth moon landing, but we’re on the verge of returning —not as singular nations but in privatized missions. We’ve come to the point where there are companies that are building the rockets that will take private citizens to the moon. Countries like China are sending rovers to the far side of the moon, were no one has ventured before —as recently as January 2019. Later this year, the first Israeli moon lander will be launched from Kennedy Space Center here in the U.S. So we’re having a lunar renaissance in the way that we’re having more and more countries and organizations sending missions to the moon. Meanwhile, NASA is looking in coming years to send astronauts back to the lunar orbit in cooperation with its European, Canadian, Russian and Japanese partners with the intention of pushing on to Mars. After 50 years, we’re at a new crossroads where we’re ready to travel beyond flags and footprints toward more permanent lunar settlement. Soon we’ll have a lasting presence there, pushing out into the solar system with the goal of always having humans exploring space.