Top 5 Space Documentaries to Binge This Christmas

Article By : George Leopold

After identifying the five best space-based movies, here are the best space documentaries for your viewing pleasure.

We watch movies to be entertained, to leave the everyday world and enter new ones. Documentary films are grounded in the real world, and because of this they can lend perspective, explore issues in-depth and, ultimately, instruct and enlighten. Such is the case with a handful of documentary films about the Space Race in general and Project Apollo in particular.

The key insight revealed in all these films is that in going to the moon, humankind gained a unique perspective and deeper appreciation of our home planet. To the Apollo astronauts, Earth appeared so small and fragile against the blackness of the universe. That realization alone made the $25 billion expenditure (in 1960s dollars) worth every penny.


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As the year winds down, we select the best space exploration documentaries of the last three decades, a period when filmmakers brought to the screen the danger, the risks, the wonder of exploring new worlds. Many of these documentaries made heavy use of vaults full of NASA archival footage — some of it only recently rediscovered and reformatted for IMAX.

The documentary form continues to evolve and inform — and often entertain just as big-budget, space-themed films have for decades. Here are our Top 5 space documentaries.

 

In the Shadow of the Moon: This tightly edited documentary (run time: 110 minutes) directed by David Sington contains some of the most vivid descriptions of what it was like flying to and walking on the moon. Sington coaxed nearly all the Apollo astronauts (except Neil Armstrong) to sit down for two days to talk about what they saw, heard and felt.

For example, many of the astronauts—especially the rookies—simply could not believe how much the Saturn V booster shook and vibrated during launch. Some assumed it would explode and break apart. At least one, Alan Bean of Apollo 12, admitted he was fearful. “If that [Apollo command module] window blows out, I’ll be dead in about three seconds,” Bean recalled thinking.

Sington includes just enough footage from the moon walks to underscore what a remarkable achievement was Project Apollo. Charlie Duke, the voluble lunar module pilot on Apollo 16, provided this evocative reaction to treading on the lunar surface:

The moon was the most spectacularly beautiful desert you could ever imagine. Unspoiled. Untouched. It had a vibrancy about it. And the contrast between the moon and the black sky was so vivid. It just made this impression of excitement and wonder.

Then there is this perspective from Duke: “My father was born shortly after the Wright Brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the moon. But my son Tom was five, and he didn’t think it was any big deal.”

Composer Philip Sheppard’s celestial score succeeds in turning the iconic super-slow-motion engineering footage of the Saturn V launches into an Amish barn-raising — an homage to the many astronauts, flight controllers and engineers trained at Midwestern engineering schools.

Apollo 11: The first-rate documentary was released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. The production team unearthed and digitized never-before-seen 70-mm footage, including the film’s opening shot spread across an IMAX screen: the Apollo Saturn V in all its wide-angle splendor being hauled at 1 mile per hour on a gigantic crawler out to Pad 39A.

The lunar landing sequence is especially compelling since the filmmakers include on-screen the readouts of the lunar module’s altitude, rate of descent and remaining fuel.

The film also includes many of the Project Apollo engineers and technicians, providing what amounts to the film’s narration. That approach also provides viewers a sense of the enormous effort and organization required to take humans to another world. And then bring them home.

An Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature is likely. Apollo 11 gets our vote.

For All Mankind: Way before it was cool, the filmmaker Al Reinhart realized how compelling was the footage and insights the Apollo astronauts had brought back from the moon — and what it all meant. The film’s narration is a bit confusing since the astronaut-narrators are not identified. Hence, viewers can’t always determine which astronaut is speaking during many scenes. Still, the images and the explorers’ commentary are so compelling that only space weenies would notice.

Brian Eno supplies the ethereal soundtrack that brings 1980s sensibility to the late 1960s adventure in space.

Released in 1989, For All Mankind did for space documentaries what The Right Stuff (the book, not the movie) did for popular understanding of the Space Race: It reminded us what a great human adventure it was.

First to the Moon: A relatively recent and excellent telling of the first humans to leave Planet Earth, “the three men who saved 1968,” according the film’s tagline.

No small feat given 1968 saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, along with the turmoil in America’s cities. The nation was fractured. American needed a lift. The voyage of Apollo 8 was just the ticket.

Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders tell the story of how they accepted the risk of flying the Saturn V to the moon and then hope like hell they could make it home. The odds were about 50-50, and they pulled it off. In so doing, capturing the greatest image of the 20thcentury: Earthrise.

Apollo was about leaving. Borman, Lovell and Anders left, then came back to tell us what they saw. As Lovell said, “It was a time when we made bold moves.”

Moon Machines: Another David Sington production, this one in five segments covering the Apollo Saturn V, lunar module, the magnificent Apollo flight computer, the lunar rover and Apollo space suits. Each was integral to the success of the moon landings.

The key to NASA’s lunar orbit rendezvous mode for reaching the moon was the Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever successfully launched. In November 1967, months after the disastrous Apollo 1 launchpad fire, space agency officials rolled the dice and stacked the entire three stages for an all-up test. Wernher von Braun and his conservative rocketeers initially resisted the risky test flight.

NASA and North American Aviation engineers had solved a myriad of problems, like shaving weight off the rocket’s second stage, illustrating as one senior manager declared how “engineers can do just about anything.”

They were as good as their word. On November 9, 1967, the unmanned Apollo 4 roared off the pad, effectively ending the Space Race by demonstrating the United States alone possessed the means to reach the moon. A year later, Apollo 8 did just that, then came home.

Moon Machines is a straightforward, Science Channel documentary, but is nevertheless packed with behind-the-scenes stories of historic technical achievements. Those recollections serve as reminders of how 400,000 engineers and technicians worked themselves to exhaustion to meet the goal of landing humans on another world and bringing the explorers back to tell us what they saw.

 

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