By Lyla O’Hara
The other day, I saw “Apollo 11” with my dad in the IMAX theater at Destiny. Honestly, I was rather unenthusiastic about spending my afternoon in a dark theater, but my father convinced me of how cool it would be – and he was right. I expected another “Cosmos,” perhaps narrated by Morgan Freeman or Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining physics I’d have to see Dr. Utuge about later. But “Apollo 11” did something different. The entire documentary told the story of the first man on the moon, from liftoff to splashdown, using only footage shot at the time.
It’s one thing to see a sci-fi film in theaters, with their CGI spacecrafts and epic galactic warfare, but I found it to be quite another — and surprisingly appealing — to see footage of the astronauts (not actors) actually touching down on the moon nearly fifty years ago. Before seeing “Apollo 11,” I was only vaguely aware color TV existing in 1969, let alone cameras capable of capturing a rocket hurtling “at 7.9 kilometers per second spaceward” and “347 nautical miles down range.” Just as impressive is the fact that the movie’s powerful story is told without narration, but by the people who lived through the experience of Apollo 11. In all, the documentary felt genuine: the impossibly large Apollo 11 that dominated the horizon, the incredible power a viewer could feel during takeoff, and the half-million gallons of fuel it took to propel just three men to the moon.
The cinematography was immersive, but I was really struck by the faces and the people. In almost every scene, people are united in camaraderie and solidarity, a brotherhood—one that transcended the astronauts, and even the scientists and technicians at Mission Control—growing in the hearts of the entire nation. Thousands of people gathered along the sandy banks of Cape Canaveral to view the liftoff, like the camping and tailgating typically seen just on college football game days. Millions more watched it on TVs, mostly still black & white (so I’m told). Really, Apollo 11 enthralled an entire nation in its liftoff.
In that moment, the heads that turned skyward all shared the same dream. America put its faith in a rocketship, sent it to the moon, and brought back space rocks (before the Russians).
In history class, I’ve learned about all the times America came together to fight its enemies. The “Join or Die” narrative is engraved into the American conscience. But, this time, I felt the people came together not in defense of an ideal, but in pursuit of one. In the midst of the Cold War, what made people forget about possible nuclear annihilation to pursue something so frivolous as an expedition to the moon? In a time of fragmentation and mistrust, what made us believe we could make it to space? For what cause did a nation put aside its ridiculous zeal for differences and cast its skeptical eye skyward?
In today’s age of political disunity, the constant bickering of a divided America feels a lot like home. In my eighteenth year, I’ve been hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve seen these factions coalesce. A group unites to push something, another to protest something; some of us watch the Super Bowl, others watch the NCAAs. Even in a football game we’re divided. Just look at the stands and there’s a sea of people, split down the middle by team colors. But the launch of Apollo 11 saw families massed around their television sets, New Yorkers stopped in their fast, fast tracks to catch a glimpse in Times Square, even workers in Italy on break to watch the revolutionary news from America. People of all sorts stopped, suspended from their disparity, to watch the human race confront the great unknown of space — together.
“Apollo 11” chronicles of one of the greatest feats of human history. This story doesn’t need Hollywood dramatization or CGI, and the documentary appreciates this. It gives a new generation, and reminds the old, of just what our country can do with its unity and determination.