Their walk-on roles

Times Staff Writer

Looking up at it from down here, the moon seems all mystery -- a vast, nebulous, glowing ball illuminating the dark sky to ease the fears of mankind below. But for the 12 men -- only nine of whom are still living -- who have walked upon the moon’s surface, the planetary body has come to represent far more than a night light.

Though Neil Armstrong’s renowned “one small step” line has come to define the importance of the nine Apollo missions to the moon from 1968 to 1972 for many Americans, most still haven’t an idea of what it was really like to be up there, looking down at this place we call home.

British film director David Sington recognized the significance of the untold tales of the moon still kept by the astronauts, and decided to bring one astronaut from every Apollo mission together for the first time to tell their stories in a documentary, entitled “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which opens Friday.

“There wasn’t really a film out there that looked at things from the astronauts’ perspectives,” said Sington. “To me, it was just an obvious thing that needed to be done. It was irresistible.”


With the help of Dave Scott, who served as the command module pilot on Apollo 9 and commander on Apollo 15, Sington began recruiting the aging astronauts to the project in 2004.

Despite the fact that Sington ultimately ended up with an impressive cast, one big player was missing from the lineup: Armstrong. Although he was in e-mail correspondence with the first man to walk on the moon, Sington was never able to persuade the notoriously tight-lipped Armstrong to participate in the film.

“It was like getting an e-mail from Archangel Gabriel,” Sington said, remembering receiving e-mails from Armstrong. “I’d leap up and hide under the bed and press the button to see what he’s said. But he made a conscious decision to take his own ego out of that historical moment,” he added. “It’s actually a magnificent gesture of restraint, to allow us to all share in this moment that the whole human race has.”

With Armstrong out, the crew began an extensive research period before interviewing the astronauts. Each interview, shot in tight close-ups of the men’s faces, was preceded by 60 pages of notes for preparation and each took nearly two days to complete.


“They’re very, very self-confident, remarkably intelligent individuals who are clearly courageous men,” Sington said. “There’s no forced sort of posturing to them. They all feel lucky to have the extraordinary experience and recognize they couldn’t have done it without 400,000 other Americans working on the Apollo project. It’s rather captivating in the celebrity-obsessed age.”

Saluting ‘cowboy adventurers’

The film, which has already garnered some impressive accolades -- including the award for best documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival -- was embraced by director Ron Howard, the “Apollo 13" director who has long had a well-marked passion for space.

“The Apollo astronauts were a blend of cowboy adventurers; guys with an incredible intellectual stamina. They’re a remarkable breed of problem-solvers,” said Howard, who has signed on to lend his name to the film, which now boasts “Ron Howard presents” before the title. “These men lived it and they tell the stories in a really engrossing way,” he said in a phone call.


Indeed, the astronauts manage to be eloquent and endearing on-screen, spewing out quirky, never-before-heard anecdotes and impressions about their unique journeys to the moon.

“I don’t ever complain about anything now,” said Alan Bean, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12. “Not the weather -- I’m just glad we’ve got some. Not traffic, or too many people in line at the post office. Every morning when I wake up, I count my blessings that I’m healthy and that I was born and lived in this great country where we can make our dreams come true.”

The documentary is also peppered with astonishing footage, discovered by producers Duncan Copp and Chris Riley, who spent weeks in NASA’s extensive library exploring cans of film -- some of which hadn’t been opened for nearly 30 years. Their efforts helped to yield the documentary’s vivid, intensely bright footage of takeoffs and lunar landings, much of which is remastered archival material.

As far as President Bush’s proposal to return to the moon by 2020 in anticipation of further Mars exploration, those involved in the film say space travel is an indelible part of the culture.


“Human beings are explorers,” said Howard. “It’s in our nature. As a country, the fact that we established a leading role in the space adventure is something that we want to maintain leadership in, because it’s an inevitable aspect of the future.”

Changing lunar landscape

Bean agreed that continued exploration of space and the moon is a given. “Someday, hundreds of years from now, there’ll be a whole outpost on the moon so people can go up there,” he said. “They might learn to raise crops and people will want to emigrate, it’s all just a question of how quickly it takes place,” he said by phone from his home in Houston.

For a film based on such an inexplicable experience, the documentary stays well-grounded. “In the Shadow of the Moon” is a story of courage, detailing a historic time when Sington believes America truly lived up to its “promise and potential” and, for a moment, brought the world together.


“I certainly came back with a great belief in what mankind can do when they’re faced with a challenge,” said Harrison Schmitt, lunar module pilot of Apollo 17.

“These are times when Americans are feeling a bit bruised by events, uncertain and depressed about their country,” Sington added. “Apollo was a demonstration of the U.S. way of life, and I think this film reminds Americans of a time when, unequivocally, the entire world was united in cheering on a fantastic American achievement.”