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Apollo 11, The Movie

March 4, 2019

I wrote about the movie First Man last year. I didn't care for it, though the book it was based on was brilliant.

A new movie is out. Apollo 11 is all about, well, you know exactly what it's about. In July it'll be 50 years since that mission.

The movie is a documentary composed entirely of old material from NASA. It seems there was an enormous cache of previously unreleased video, which the production company trimmed down to an utterly compelling hour and a half. The only recent footage was an occasional simple graphic that showed what the spacecraft were doing at different points in the mission.

We saw the IMAX version; if you can, by all means catch it in this format. The enormous screen and Earth-rattling audio makes it a visceral experience.

Had I watched it alone I'd report that this is a movie only a techie could love, as the commentary is largely recordings of Mission Control's technical monotone, discussions on the controller's circuits, and communications with the spacecraft. There are no voice-overs, there's no narrator. There are a blizzard of acronyms, and plenty of static-distorting deep space audio. Yet Marybeth, who is an artist and doesn't know an LM from a CM, was completely blown away.

For Apollo 11 does blow you away. When those five F1 engines roar the IMAX theatre rocks and you can imagine what it would have been like to feel that launch from a few miles away. It starts off with the crawler-transporter moving to the pad, and the sound that machine makes is unforgettable. When the LM docks with the CM after returning from the lunar surface the spacecraft bang and the LM's thermal blanket rattles.

We've all seen the videos of the Saturn's first stage ascending; those films quickly get grainy as the rocket disappears into the stratosphere. Yet Apollo 11 shows that stage separating and the S-II firing up, which I had never seen before. Somehow (an amazing camera? A spy satellite?) it shows the trans-lunar injection burn, which occurred over 200 miles high. That's the reignition of the S-IVB stage to leave Earth orbit.

Marybeth was surprised and puzzled about the LM's ascent stage being thrown away. The full-up configuration on the pad weighed some 6.5 million pounds, yet all that came back was the 12,000 pound command module. The Earth's gravitational well is very deep. Even today, a half-century later, the Falcon 9 needs a million pounds of fuel to put 22,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit.

Apollo 11 highlights some still photography Armstrong and Aldrin took on the moon. These images are stunning and beautiful.

I did learn a few things. The F1 engines were covered with thermal blankets. Those in museums aren't and the tubes that blanket the nozzle are a standout feature stuck in memory. Another surprise: when Apollo was coasting to and from the moon I always assumed it was aimed in the direction of travel. Instead, it was 90 degrees from that direction, pointing "up" instead of forward. Upon reflection, that makes sense as it was in a "barbecue roll" to evenly distribute solar radiation, and the sun-Earth-moon system is more or less on a plane. If pointing in the direction of travel, the sun would be baking the service module's engine bell and the roll would have no effect.

I only wish the movie was longer.

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