On July 20th, 1969, a long-imagined theme of science fiction finally became science fact when Neil Armstrong took one ‘giant leap for mankind’ and set foot on the Moon.
Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NASA’s history-making Apollo 11 mission, the BBC have released a DVD looking back at that incredible achievement, from a very British perspective.
Apollo 11 – A Night To Remember was first broadcast on BBC4 in 2006 as a special episode of long-running TV series, The Sky At Night.
Presented by Sir Patrick Moore, who commented on the moon landing for the BBC four decades ago, the documentary is fascinating in two respects. The first is the dramatic story it sets out to tell, and the second is the highly-commendable way in which it attempts to tell it.
The Apollo 11 mission was the fulfilment of a wish expressed by President John F. Kennedy some eight years earlier, when he told Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The three men who would eventually fulfil that dream – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – guaranteed themselves a place in the history books when they set out, on July 16, 1969, on the most challenging and dangerous voyage of discovery ever attempted.
From the second the astronauts blasted off from the launch pad of the Kennedy Space Centre strapped to an immensely powerful Saturn V rocket, to the moment they returned to Earth eight days later, their lives were constantly in danger.
Any number of things could have gone wrong along the way and out in space there would have been no-one to help. Even landing on the Moon was a concern, with some scientists still unsure whether the ground would be solid, or, as Arthur C. Clarke once described in classic novel A Fall Of Moondust, a fine layer of dust which would absorb the lunar module “Eagle” as if it were on quicksand.
As Sir Patrick Moore admits on the DVD, it was nail-bitingly tense throughout and it is to the credit of the makers of A Night To Remember that the sense of high tension felt at the time has been so perfectly retained. Watching the documentary, I was completely immersed in the action and as concerned for the crew as audiences around the world must have been while watching it unfold live on TV.
For me, it was like viewing the best sci-fi film ever but with the added dimension of knowing that everything happening was real. The footage of the Moon landing might have been grainy, out-of-focus black and white but the iconic images of man on another planet, under a perpetually jet-black sky, evoked the clearest feelings of the sublime I have ever experienced.
Earlier in my review I said the documentary was equally fascinating in the way it told the story of the Apollo 11 mission. The reason for that is the pain-staking efforts that have been made to recreate as closely as possible a sense of what the original BBC coverage was like.
Though both BBC channels covered the mission extensively from start to end, totalling 27 hours of live output including the first-ever all-night broadcast on British television for the actual Moon landing, next to nothing of that historic footage still resides in the archives. As with many programmes from the era, the tapes were either lost or erased and it really is a tragic loss.
What little that does remain, or has subsequently been rediscovered, has been lovingly put together for A Night To Remember.
The bulk of the documentary features internationally-broadcast satellite pictures married with amateur audio recordings of the BBC in-studio commentary to give as an authentic viewing experience as possible.
This is interspersed with a few entertaining colour film inserts presented by James Burke featuring him inside the cramped Apollo Command Module, demonstrating the Apollo Saturn emergency precautions, explaining construction of the the Luna spacesuit, and experiencing weightlessness training.
In addition there are a few scene-setting reports, also in colour, by Michael Charlton from Houston Mission Control and two tantalizingly short clips from the BBC studio presentation. The second, lasting just 20 seconds and sourced from a poor quality home recording, is the only known footage from the Apollo 11 coverage of James Burke and Patrick Moore together.
Sir Patrick has said that the moon landing was the most exciting event he has ever reported on and it’s wonderful to finally be able to hear, and briefly see, some of his contribution in this superb documentary.
A Night To Remember lasts just under two hours and is never dull. Commentating on the launch of the magnificent Saturn 5 rocket, Michael Charlton describes it as a “technological castle”. It’s a perfect image for the whole Apollo 11 mission: part modern-day scientific marvel, part old-world fantasy.
Together these seemingly disparate strands combine to make an awe-inspiring story and arresting, intelligent programme to savour.
The main extra on the disc is a complete edition (15 minutes) of The Sky At Night from 1960, focussing on the Moon. Eyebrow constantly a-quiver, Patrick Moore is, as always, passionate about the subject and it gives a greater appreciation of how far we’ve come in our understanding of our nearest neighbour. There are also biographies of Sir Patrick and the Apollo
Apollo 11 – A Night To Remember is out now.