If you didn’t know already, we’re Bertha DocHouse, the UK’s first cinema dedicated entirely to documentaries, and that means we’re absolutely mad about docs like Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11.
Rather like the moon landings themselves, some docs feel like they’re once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and this 93-minute archival masterpiece is one of those experiences.
It’s not just that Miller’s film blows up those historic moments in 1969 to a scale and clarity you never thought imaginable, it places you right front and centre of one of the biggest moments in history, and if you’re even a little bit interested in space, the results are hair-raisingly good.
But we found that the awe-inspiring effect of Apollo 11 actually left us with almost as many questions as answers – so here are five facts that will prep you for your voyage to the cinema.
1. Houston, We’re Going via Sheffield, England
If you’ve read up on Apollo 11 so far, you’ll probably know that the film draws from over 11,000 hours of previously unseen footage and audio clips. But did you know that a lot of this project has to do with archive producer based in Sheffield?
A true lover of all things related to space exploration, Stephen Slater has one of the world’s most extensive digital collections of high definition NASA archive material, weighing in at an epic 20,000+ hours of content.
Stephen has previously worked with the BBC on docs such as Destination Titan, and his almost unrivalled passion for the subject was instrumental in the making of Apollo 11.
2. Boldly Going through the Archives
Apollo 11 wouldn’t be the incredible, 8K IMAX visual miracle it is today if it wasn’t for a weird twist of fate back in 1969.
To respond to the competition of television, cinema in the late 60s was turning to ever bigger and better, proto-IMAX formats, and MGM Studios had been involved in filming the whole Apollo project on 70mm.
However, MGM backed out, leaving NASA desperately turning to filmmakers to make something anyway. As a result, they ended up working with Theo Kamecke, at the time an editor, who produced the now cult doc Moonwalk One.
But the make-shift nature of this shoot also meant that they ended up filming the project on the then somewhat outdated Todd-AO film, meaning that lots of the offcuts from this film never really had the equipment to make it accessible after filming.
That is until Todd Douglas Miller’s production company actually went out of their way to privately finance and build custom hardware and software to read these reels of film.
At the film’s Sundance Q&A, Miller said that once word got out about what they were doing, they began receiving reels from across the country, and it began to feel like a Mission Control-sized operation, as they were increasingly having to worry about keeping the reels sufficiently refrigerated.
3. One Giant Technological Leap for “Man”-kind
The complexity of the software and the amount of bandwidth required to digitise Apollo 11’s found fragments of film cannot be understated, so it’s incredible to think that – even though it was the most advanced computer in the world at that time – the actual computer used to guide the moon lander back in 1969 was millions of times less powerful than the smartphone in your pocket.
But it wasn’t just men who made this giant leap for humankind possible. In the documentary, you also catch the briefest of glimpses of JoAnn Morgan – the first female engineer at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Centre, and the only woman who was present in the firing room during the Saturn V/Apollo 11 launch to the Moon.
Margaret Hamilton was another young MIT scientist and working mum, who didn’t make it into the control room but did pioneer the onboard flight software for many of the Apollo missions.
Without the alarm systems she helped to design, the crew of the moon lander would never have been aware of the critical technical faults that occurred to the moon lander moments before their descent.
Lots of other women, who will probably never be named, were also involved in “weaving” or wiring this new generation of NASA computers, so despite the prejudices of the time, many women still made a vital contribution to this cutting-edge new field of science.
4. How Exactly Did Apollo 11 Almost Go (Horrifically) Wrong During Descent?
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their descent to the moon, their calculations showed them that the moon’s gravitational pull was not what they expected. This meant they were hurtling towards the surface at a greater speed than intended.
Aldrin asked the onboard computer to compare the distance their radar detected from the moon with their predicted distance. The answer was a warning klaxon ringing in his ear.
Aldrin keyed in the two-digit code 5-9-Enter, a command prompt which translated, roughly, as “display alarm.” The computer responded with the error code “1202.”
Despite months of training, neither Aldrin or Armstrong knew what this meant, so they radioed Mission Control. The reality? Their onboard computer had been overloaded and crashed.
A nervous, 24-year-old expert at Mission Control consulted his hand-written notes and confirmed this meant the computer was rebooting but had saved data vital to their descent. 30 seconds after signalling Mission Control, Armstrong was therefore told that they were still “Go.”
Aldrin queried the computer for the second time. It crashed. This would happen time and time again as they made their descent, leaving the astronauts with ever fewer options for aborting.
The computer scientists behind the machine subsequently admitted their absolute terror at this point, and that they probably would have never kept giving Armstrong the green light, given the fact that some unknown process was putting their computer beyond its processing power, making the final stages of descent near impossible.
5. Winging It – During the Most Important Moment in History
At about 2,000 feet above the moon’s surface, the lander’s computer suffered its worst crash yet, cutting out for 10 long seconds.
At this point, aborting the mission was becoming as dangerous as continuing, so Armstrong seemed left with little choice other than to land, and Mission Control had basically nothing left to contribute.
Armstrong switched some processes to manual, freeing up some of the computer’s processing power, but the distraction had caused the pilots to overshoot their intended landing zone wildly, and now hundreds of hours they’d spent memorising a portion of the moon’s surface was completely useless to them.
Armstrong was left with no choice but to wing it, and with a thumping heart rate of 150BPM, steered the lander towards a relatively smooth patch of powdery terrain he could see in the distance. He hit and hoped, and as the powder blew up on their descent obscuring their view, Aldrin was left reading streams of figures to guide him.
They landed, upright – practically more through chance and human instinct than anything else – and waited for gravity to settle the dust, so they could embark on the most important step in human history.
If we’ve piqued your interest, and you can’t wait for the launch of Apollo 11 this Friday, why not book to see it with us in central London for as little as £5? Or if you’re crazy about docs too, you can check out all the films showing in our cinema.