I grew up on the Space Coast in Florida — Kennedy Space Center was a frequent destination whenever we had out-of-town guests, and although I didn’t track the space program as closely as some of my friends, I loved watching (and feeling) the Shuttle launches. NASA was one of those things — like the ocean — that was just present, exerting its influences on me despite my childish inattention to it. But the Apollo missions all happened before I was born. I knew about them, of course, but had never really researched them or learned a lot about them aside from what I just picked up by osmosis.
Today I watched Magnificent Desolation: Man Walking on the Moon, which is running as part of OMSI’s IMAX Film Festival. It’s a film from 2005 but I hadn’t seen it before, so I was glad to have the opportunity to catch it now.
The title is taken from Buzz Aldrin’s comment about the landscape after setting foot on the moon, and the movie does a fantastic job of putting you on the surface of the moon, using very detailed computer-generated images of the moon. The movie is a combination of NASA footage (some familiar, but much of it is the less-familiar stuff), the CGI-rendered lunar surface, and re-enactments (like the photo above).
There is a bit of an irony here: at one point, Tom Hanks (who narrates the film) makes the comment that there are some people who still don’t believe the moon landings were real. This part is accompanied by a goofy scene of some folks trying unsuccessfully to shoot a faked moon landing scene. But then much of this movie itself is, well, fake. Of course, the historical footage isn’t high-res and IMAX-quality — but there’s never really a point where they make it explicit which parts are re-enactments and CGI and what’s not. As an adult, I can tell: the high-res, full-color images are simulated; the grainy black-and-white footage is real. But do kids watching today know that? Should they?
There’s a segment where they interview a bunch of kids, asking them what they know about the moon landings and whether they’d want to be astronauts themselves. Most of the kids can’t think of any of the names of the astronauts who walked on the moon: one suggests “Lance Armstrong” and another says “Jim something.” There’s this sense that the kids don’t know anything about the moon landings at all. It’s tragic to think that these missions, the “giant leap for mankind,” didn’t go any farther than that. This year (in December) marks the 40th anniversary of the last time anybody stood on the surface of the moon — and it’s not because we’ve moved beyond it.
What I really appreciated about Magnificent Desolation was getting a better perspective on how difficult it was to get people to the moon and back, particularly with the technology available at the time. The lunar modules had about as much memory as a pocket calculator — think about what would be possible with today’s computing technology. There’s a sequence imagining what would it would have been like if some disaster had occurred on the surface of the moon: what if the lunar rover had crashed, far from the landing site? Would the astronauts have been able to get back in time before they ran out of oxygen? NASA had safety plans in place, but fortunately never had to put them to the test.
Another interesting part of the movie was when they played back the first lines of all the other astronauts as they first set foot on the moon. Everyone’s familiar with Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap” quote, but we forget (or have never heard) all the others. To be sure, most of the others aren’t as poetic as Armstrong’s, but they’re worth hearing. These were men who went out into the unknown, taking great risks in the name of science.
While I don’t know that going to the moon and establishing a base there is necessarily the most sensible way forward, I do think that this movie could inspire the next generation of astronauts. Perhaps going to the moon is a tangible destination that kids can grasp, something that gets them thinking about the idea of space exploration. If you have the chance to see Magnificent Desolation on the IMAX screen, it’s certainly worth it. If not, the movie is also available on DVD. Just sit really close to your TV.