To the delight of Moon landing “truthers” reaching for straws to clutch at, there’s a moment in the BBC’s historical reconstruction 8 Days: To the Moon and Back which truly beggars belief. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are preparing to leave the lunar surface in the Eagle lander only to find that the ignition switch has snapped off.
“Houston, Tranquility, do you have a way of showing the configuration of the engine arm circuit breaker?” asks Aldrin, phoning home to request the instruction manual. “The reason I’m asking is because the end of it appears to have broken off.”
Following a night considering being stranded on the Moon forever, while Houston engineers frantically worked to come up with a viable solution, Aldrin solved the problem by jabbing the offending button into the “on” position with a QB-2 Astronaut Marker felt-tip pen. After eight years of training and $19 billion of funding, Aldrin employed the astronaut-equivalent of sticking a fork in a toaster to get the bread out. And it worked.
Lovingly recreated portraits — all factually accurate — breathe new life into the first Moon landing story a week before its 50th anniversary. Actors lip-synch to declassified audio material, alongside re-enacted footage and digital effects, as well as stirring commentary from the former NBC news anchor Walter Cronkite.
Reconstruction: The documentary recreates events of 50 years ago (BBC Studios/Gary Moyes)
The technology which got them there remains remarkable: the 36-storey, 3,000-tonne Saturn V rocket; the shipboard computers; the structural fortitude of anything that can survive hurtling into our atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour.
But it’s the relatable, behind-the-scenes feel which reframes our perspective of one of mankind’s greatest moments as a wide-eyed boys’ “trip” (a word Command Module Pilot Michael Collins drops casually). Details like the communion bread Aldrin took to the Moon from his hometown church, or the gentle ribbing of Armstrong for his lousy taste in music.
This feature-length documentary is a crawl at just over 80 minutes — almost as long as Aldrin and Armstrong spent walking on the lunar surface — but not an arduous one. One lingering shot, of the lander soundlessly accelerating away into space as Earth heaves into view, is exquisite, as is the thrill of publicity-shy astronauts briefly escaping a planet hungry for their life stories.
True, there are more rueful, complete accounts of these events. The 2018 film First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, dwelt longer on the string of tragedies that preceded Apollo 11’s success: the deaths of potential astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett, as well as those of the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffe, in a fire on their rocket’s launchpad.
“This trip of ours to the Moon may have looked to you simple or easy. I’d like to assure you that has not been the case,” says Collins, doffing his cap to the people who made it all possible.
“We could have sent machines,” muses Cronkite, and he was probably right. But that would have been half the story.
8 Days: To the Moon and Back airs on BBC Two at 9pm.