Extract from Buzz Aldrin’s introduction to the film at a Gala Screening in the Egyptian Cinema in Hollywood, July 7th 2008.
“It gives me enormous pleasure, and a thrill, to be able to introduce Tony Palmer’s remarkable film about our space adventures. I say remarkable because at the time it was made, 1978/9, very little of the footage you are about to see had ever been seen in public, images which are now so familiar as to be truly iconic. But it was Tony who used them first, and we are very pleased that he did, even if he did construct the longest take-off in history! I still get a chill hearing some of the talk-back which, like the footage, NASA had provided for Tony to use. When the rocket takes off, boy is that a roller-coaster ride, bumpy as hell. So when you hear my voice saying “little bit of shaking there”, you’ll know what I mean!
Tony will tell you later how the film came about. We, the astronauts, knew nothing about it at the time, but we became very aware of its importance later on. You see, at that time, the Apollo Missions had come to an end, way back in 1972, and I now realise that the bosses in NASA needed something to remind Congress and the President what an astonishing achievement had been made by all the Apollo Missions, and therefore wasn’t it worth investing in the Shuttle programme which was then stalling and in real need of lift-off, if I may call it that? The film helped to do the trick, and the rest is history, so thank you Tony for what you did.
You know, I’m often asked whether I minded not being the first man to step upon the surface of the moon. Oddly enough, I was originally designated to be the first, but quite late on in the preparations, I was told it would be my co-pilot Neil Armstrong. Obviously, I was a little disappointed at first, but then I thought, Neil is probably a better pilot than me, so what the hell.
And then, when we were coming in to land at Tranquillity Base, we could see through the capsule’s windows that the place was strewn with rather large boulders. You see, at that point the capsule was being guided by its on-board computer – incidentally, we had much less computer power on the entire mission than is contained in those little blackberry phones today. Amazing ! Anyway, seeing those boulders, Neil and I just looked at each other, and I’m sure both of us thought that if one of the legs on the LEM, the Lunar Module, touched down on one of those boulders, we might tip over and that would be that.
Without saying a word, Neil lent forward, switched off the computer, and piloted the craft home manually, and you can hear that on the sound track – “two feet forward, one foot to the left, picking up a bit of dust” and so on. After Neil had landed the LEM safely, I suddenly realised I couldn’t see out of my visor. It had completely misted up with my sweat. So I flipped it open and looked over to Neil. Neil was utterly calm, and I knew at that moment that truly he was a much better pilot than me.
And do you know? The incredible thing is that when we finally touched down, we only had precisely nine seconds of fuel left. What a man !!”
The chit-chat between the astronauts and ground control made available to us by NASA now has an added poignancy, and unbelievable tension, when you remember Armstrong was bringing the spaceship in to land….. manually!!
(Armstrong talking): “Thirty five degrees. Seven hundred and fifty. Coming down at 321 now, 33 degrees. A hundred feet, down at 19. Five hundred and twenty feet down at three. Down at fifteen. Four hundred feet, down at nine. Fifteen down at two and a half. Three feet forward. Two twenty feet. Fifteen forward. Four and a half down. Five and a half down. Hundred feet, three and a half down. Nine forward. Five percent. Ninety five. Seventy five feet. Looking good now, and a half. Six forward. Down two and a half. Forward. Forward. Twenty feet down, two and a half. Thirty feet two and a half down. Six down. Four forward. Four forward. Five right. Okay, engine stopped.”
(Ground control): We copy you down, Eagle. (Armstrong): Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed. (Ground control): Roger Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
What unbelievable bravery.
The story of Man’s adventure to the Moon really began with President Kennedy in 1961. “Now it is time to take longer strides”, he had said. “Time for a great new American enterprise. Time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement. Which, in many ways, may hold the key to our future on Earth. The eyes of the world now look into space – to the Moon and to the planets beyond.
But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the depth of our energies and skills.”
Provoked by the famous ‘peep peep’ of the Spunik orbiting the earth in October 1957, Wernher von Braun – the German-American scientist – addressing a Congressional committee had said: “We have been told that the hammer and sickle flag has now been planted on the moon and we have no reason to doubt it. I would not be at all surprised to be hearing a human voice from outer space that will have an unmistakable Russian accent.”
Worse was to come. On April 12th 1961, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth aboard his craft, Vostok 1. The United States had sent its congratulations. Then, on August 6th 1961, Cosmonaut Gherman Titov became the second man in space. He stayed in orbit for 25 hours 18 minutes. Two years later, Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Her craft, Vostok 6, orbited for 70 hours and fifty minutes. The United States had merely sent its congratulations. No wonder Kennedy had made his stirring declaration. “We have vowed that we shall not see (space) governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace,” he said. “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first wave of the industrial revolution. The first waves of modern invention. And the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it, we mean to lead it.”
The invitation to make the film came out of the clear blue sky from NASA in January 1978. I had no idea why they had asked me. All I was told was that they needed a film to mark the 10th Anniversary of the first landing on the moon, July 21st 1969. I was invited to Washington and shown the mountain of film NASA had collected from the very beginnings with John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth in February 1962, until Apollo 17 December 1972. Use whatever I wanted, I was told. This, plus all the talk-back between ground control in Houston and the various space missions, I realised was a treasure house.
Ringing in my ears, for instance, was President Johnson’s speech immediately before Apollo XI, addressed to the commander Neil Armstrong, his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin and Capsule commander Michael Collins, as they set off, not only to the Moon, but to immortality. Johnson had said: “I had a memorandum a short time ago from the man who handled the Washington-Moscow hotline. And I thought you would be interested in a portion of that memorandum to the President. We asked them if they would be interested in being informed of the development of the Apollo programme. And the hotline personnel in Moscow responded enthusiastically and asked us to keep them posted. And here at the hotline in Washington, we relayed information in regard to the most important aspects of your flight. The Soviets were very solicitous about the welfare of you astronauts and expressed their great interest in the successive flights. Nearly five centuries ago, we heard stories of the new world for the first time. There is just no other comparison that we can make that’s equal to what we feel.”
And so, in the winter of 1978, the coldest winter on record, my trusted researcher Annunziata Asquith was despatched to Washington and began to systematically comb through the hours of material put at my disposal and make notes of what I might need. She and I soon realised that very little, if any, of this spectacular visual material had ever been seen before. The chit-chat between the astronauts and ground control was beyond priceless. Here are a few examples:
Meanwhile, back in London, Richard Branson kept asking me if I could think of a film project which might interest his principal client, Mike Oldfield. As I was the only person to have successfully filmed the notoriously prickly Mike (for Episode 17 of All You Need Is Love) at Kington in Herefordshire, overlooking Hergest Ridge, Richard thought I had the best chance of emerging relatively unscathed from such a project. My admiration for Mike’s genius was unbounded, a fact which for him was irrelevant – he was not susceptible to flattery of any kind!
I suggested to Richard that this NASA film might be the answer, and in April 1978 I was sent to Mike’s new house at Throughan Slad in Gloucestershire to discuss what might be possible. In spite of Mike being at his most confrontational, he seemed intrigued by the idea and said he would begin work as soon as I sent him some of the material, which I did soon thereafter. I figured that a year would give him sufficient time to compose a soundtrack to end all soundtracks. Meantime, I reported back to NASA that Mike Oldfield had agreed to write the music for the film. They were overjoyed.
Much later I realised why the invitation had come to me. One of the NASA hierarchy had seen at least part of my history of American popular music All You Need Is Love, and had calculated that to have a film using their hitherto unseen and extraordinary footage accompanied by some modern rock ‘n’ roll and/or pop music might get the message through to as wide an audience as possible. Whether they had imagined The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix singing Fly Me To The Moon, I have no idea. But what they got was Mike Oldfield. And once Mike Oldfield was on board, Richard Branson and his cousin Simon Draper immediately said they would part finance the film on behalf of their new company, Virgin Films.
As time passed and with the 10th anniversary date getting ever closer, I was repeatedly assured both by Mike and Richard Branson that everything down in Gloucestershire was “going well.” But eventually, knowing that I had to deliver the finished film in time for its UK and US television transmissions, I insisted on hearing the music track, or at least the work in progress, and was duly invited again to Throughan Slad. Mike seemed genuinely pleased to see me and took me to his studio to hear the results of his labours. He played me about seven minutes of music and asked if I approved. Of course, I said. And the remaining 80 minutes? Oh, I haven’t done that yet, he said.
It had taken him six months to write those seven minutes, and wonderful though they were, they were clearly not enough, and here I was, two months from the deadline, with a BIG problem. Time to have another talk to Richard Branson. As always, Richard had a solution.
Part of the delay in Mike finishing my soundtrack, he explained, was that he had wanted to finish what was to be his next LP (as they were in those days), provisionally entitled Incantations. That too was unfinished, but Richard thought he could persuade Mike to let me use what I needed, even though the final mix of the album was far from complete. In addition, Richard had recordings of the orchestral versions of both Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge (Mike’s first two albums) which at that time had never been officially released, quite simply because Mike did not care for them. Leave it with me, said Richard with his customary unstoppable bonhomie. And that is how I finally ‘constructed’ the music soundtrack for the film. I’ve always assumed Mike approved, since we have remained friends until today, quite an achievement I’m told as far as Mike is concerned. In fact, his album of Incantations was eventually released before our film was finished. And although I think he would not forgive me for saying so, I think the ‘mix’ we used was occasionally rather better.
His ‘re-edited’ music track for the film, however, is remarkable, perfect in every way – evocative, powerful, an inspiring match for the images. And I’m sure it is that, plus of course the astonishing NASA footage and the sound of the astronauts chatting away in space. Virgin Films may have long gone, but together these elements made and make the film what it is - something rather special.