Reliving the glory of America’s giant leap for mankind.

Rocket Men 

Reliving the glory of America’s giant leap for mankind.

"NASA is, at bottom, a myth-spinning public relations machine, a giant image factory whose principal goal is to hype metaphors of human frontiers — both physical and intellectual — in exchange for enormous sums of taxpayer money." So wrote Texas Monthly earlier this year, in a piece that lambasted the waste and needless risk of NASA in general and the deathtrap space shuttle in particular.

As a well-timed corrective, now comes a British documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, to restore the space program's luster. A stirring account of the Apollo program's mission to the moon, as remembered by some of the few men ever to view the Earth from the other end of a telescope, David Sington's doc recaptures the thrill, the terror and the heroism of man hurling himself into the void.

The wide-eyed, square-jawed kid brother of the Manhattan Project's atomic-age skullduggery, the U.S. space program was the smiling face of technocratic Cold War rivalry. It was a time when a diversion couldn't have come in handier. Meanwhile, the astronauts say, they were oblivious to the upheaval sweeping the country in the 1960s. As long as they were airborne, so was everyone else.

Indeed, the movie's appeal — and NASA's — lies in the ennobling accomplishment of that one giant leap for mankind, a triumph that lifted the species with a single footprint in the lunar dust. The astronauts' laconic machismo in the face of this death-defying mission recalls The Right Stuff but replaces Tom Wolfe's mock-heroic jive with an elegiac, deferential tone. The movie contrasts the reminiscences of Apollo vets Mike Collins, Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin and the merry Alan Bean with footage of their youthful rocket-jockey selves. Each appears humbled by his privileged view of man's true scale in the cosmos.

Thirty-eight years ago, every nation on Earth — even the pouting Soviet Union — fixed on the comet of can-do U.S. optimism streaking into the stars. Even the French loved us then. In the Shadow of the Moon recalls the wondrous moment when America had the entire world looking up, up and not away.

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