At the outset of making his new documentary, Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller had a pro forma conversation with his contact at the National Archives and Records Administration, Dan Rooney, about what he was working on. Rooney is the supervisory archivist in NARA’s Motion Picture, Sound, and Video branch, in College Park, Maryland, which is the final repository for, among other things, any extant films whose production was underwritten by the U.S. government.
As its title indicates, Apollo 11, which will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January as a 90-minute feature (a shorter version, around 40 minutes, will reach museums later next year), is about the most famous and celebrated of all the missions carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—the one that made Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first two human beings to walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969. The 50th anniversary of this landmark was coming up, and Miller, best known for his Emmy-winning film about the discovery of the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, Dinosaur 13, was looking for a fresh approach to telling the story of the mission, without using the same old footage, tropes, and imagery. He didn’t quite know what he was after at NARA. But Rooney was intrigued when Miller mentioned that his production company, Statement Pictures, is a player in the large-format world of Imax pictures.
“So I casually told Todd, ‘Well, we do have large-format NASA materials, and I know we have 70-millimeter, but we’ve never really had the opportunity to look under the hood and see what’s there,’” Rooney told me. He decided to investigate.
In May of last year, Miller received a startling e-mail from Rooney. “I was used to the way in which archivists and librarians communicate, which is typically very monotone, very even keel,” Miller said. “But I get this e-mail from Dan, and it’s just insanely long and full of exclamation points and bolded words.” Rooney’s staff had located a cache of largely unprocessed film that he identified as the “65mm Panavision collection.” (In this format, the negative is shot on 65-mm. film and then printed as a 70-mm. positive.) “The collection consists of approximately 165 source reels of materials, covering Apollo 8 through Apollo 13,” Rooney wrote. “Thus far, we have definitively identified 61 of those 165 that relate directly to the Apollo 11 mission, including astronaut mission preparations, launch, recovery, and astronaut engagement and tours after the mission.”
“These are exciting finds, and we think it could change your direction significantly,” Rooney concluded.
The specific 70-mm. format in which the footage had been printed was the Todd-AO process, the one used for such 50s and 60s cinematic extravaganzas as Around the World in 80 Days and The Sound of Music, back when the movie industry was going ever bigger and wider to compete with the threat of television.
But what was staid NASA doing, shooting in Todd-AO in 1969, by which point the format was in decline? Part of the explanation lies in a film called Moonwalk One, directed by a man named Theo Kamecke. A couple of years before the Apollo 11 mission, NASA had put together a deal with MGM Studios and the filmmaker Francis Thompson, a pioneer in producing proto-Imax giant-screen documentaries, to make a picture that would tell the story of the entire Apollo program. But on short notice, MGM backed out. Six weeks before Apollo 11’s launch, NASA, eager to salvage some aspect of the project, asked Thompson if he was still game to do something. By then busy with other projects, he recommended Kamecke, his editor.
Kamecke was wise enough to instruct some of his cameramen not to shoot the launch, but, rather, to point their lenses in the direction of spectators, capturing the full range of humanity reveling in what it was witnessing. Moonwalk One, the kaleidoscopic, vaguely trippy movie that resulted (narrated by Laurence Luckinbill!), is a pretty good artifact of the era, and has over time acquired status as a cult film. But it died a death at the time of its 1972 release, when a saturated public was simply over Apollo-mania. (It’s easy to forget that Apollo 12 followed Apollo 11 by only four months, landing two more astronauts, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, on the moon.)
Much of the wide-screen motherlode that came to light at NARA consisted of reels, never processed, from Kamecke’s project. And some of it was footage shot by NASA itself—presumably for public-relations purposes, though there is no longer anyone alive to say definitively why the agency opted for the same format that Joseph L. Mankiewicz had used for Cleopatra.
As exhilarating as Rooney’s news was for Miller, it presented a technological challenge. NARA didn’t have 60s-era Todd-AO projectors to screen these materials, let alone the equipment to transfer them to digital. But Miller’s project presented Rooney and NARA with a golden opportunity: for a private entity to underwrite the digitization and preservation of materials that, because they are part of the National Archives, belong to the public. An arrangement was worked out to do just that. The postproduction shop with which Miller works in New York, Final Frame, rigged up custom hardware and software just for the Apollo 11 project in order to scan the Todd-AO footage to digital. As the old reels scanned through Final Frame’s machinery and their contents played out on a screen, Miller and Rooney couldn’t believe their good fortune. “Our jaws were on the floor,” Miller said. What they saw: scene after magnificent scene, in pristine, unfaded color, of vignettes from the historic mission.
They watched footage of the mission’s mighty Saturn V rocket being carried to its launchpad on a crawler-transporter, a massive contraption that looks more Lucasfilm than NASA: a quarter-acre-size hunk of platform mounted atop slow-rolling tank treads. They watched a pan across a waterside J.C. Penney store whose parking lot had become a de facto campsite for spectators, packed with moms, dads, and kids in the rust- and mustard-colored Ban-Lon leisurewear of the period, drowsily biding their time in the Florida heat until the launch, which was scheduled for 9:32 A.M. They watched Johnny Carson milling around the V.I.P. viewing section awkwardly, seemingly uncertain of how to pass the time until launch. Most movingly, they viewed intimately close shots of the astronauts—Armstrong, the mission commander; Aldrin, the lunar-module pilot; and Michael Collins, the command-module pilot—in the suit-up room at Kennedy Space Center, their faces weighted with the profundity of what they were about to undertake, while techs in white scrub caps fluttered around them like fashion stylists, checking their fasteners and headsets.
It was like a family discovering a forgotten shoebox full of old Super 8 movies of major life events and departed friends—only the family was America, the movies were of theater quality, the event was one of the most important accomplishments in human history, and the departed friend was Neil Armstrong.
Apollo 11, the mission, is the climactic chapter of an epic American tale. The story begins in 1957, when, in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launches into orbit Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. This triggers the space race between the Soviets and the Americans, the establishment of NASA, in 1958, and John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address to Congress in which he proclaims that the U.S. should land a man on the moon “before this decade is out.” The lead-up to 1969 is a succession of dense, incident-rich chapters that encompass NASA’s Project Mercury, which sends the first American astronauts into orbit; the Gemini program, which develops and hones techniques for prolonged spaceflight; and the early to mid stages of the Apollo program, where preparations for a moon landing begin in earnest.
The first manned moon mission, which takes place from July 16 to July 24 of 1969, is where time stretches out and the story slows down, luxuriating in every detail of the journey that finally deposits Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface and then brings them and Collins safely home.
Apollo 11, the film, covers just those nine days, give or take a few digressions backward and forward. But, as Miller learned, within these days lie layers upon layers of narrative, in the sheer volume of archival material they generated, and because they represented the culmination of years of work by thousands of people. Like Damien Chazelle, whose Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, was released in October, Miller was keen to transcend the familiar highlights—from the sight of the Saturn V clearing the tower to Armstrong’s famous, article-challenged first words on the lunar surface (what he meant to say was “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”)—and tell the mission’s story in a new way that would resonate with a viewing audience that, in large part, was not yet born when the landing took place.
Miller began work on Apollo 11 in 2016, when Courtney Sexton, vice president at CNN Films, the news network’s documentary division, contacted him to see if he had any bright ideas on how they might commemorate the moon landing’s 50th anniversary. Her request didn’t come out of the blue. At the time, Miller was completing a digital documentary short for CNN Films called The Last Steps, about Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon, which took place in December 1972—effectively, the epic tale’s quiet dénouement. (There were originally to have been three more missions, Apollos 18, 19, and 20, but budget cuts and shifting priorities precluded their going forward.)
While putting together The Last Steps, Miller and his producing partner, Tom Petersen, hit upon a formula that they would apply to the new film: telling the story entirely in the present tense, using only archival materials, with no present-day talking heads reflecting back on past events. (Aldrin and Collins are still alive, but Armstrong died in 2012.) Throughout the Apollo missions, NASA positioned a public-affairs officer at the elbow of the flight director at Mission Control in Houston, to explicate everything that was going on to the news media and the public. Miller decided to use the public-affairs officers, whose every utterance was recorded for posterity, as his movie’s narrators. “There’s four of them, working in shifts, and they’re all just the greatest voices, very calming, like an airline pilot’s,” he said. “Even though there’s chaos happening at certain points in the mission, you would never know it from the way these guys conduct themselves.”
But the long-forgotten 70-mm. footage proved to be an even bigger boon, making Apollo 11 feel as immediate as Chazelle’s feature—with the added benefit of showing the actual historical figures carrying out their actual historical actions.
While the Todd-AO footage was Miller’s most thrilling archival find, it wasn’t the only one. In the course of making The Last Steps, the director won the trust of the community of hard-core civilian space enthusiasts who self-identify as space nerds. Since NASA, like NARA, is a federal agency of limited resources, it has, to a surprising extent, crowd-sourced much of the curation of its own past. For example, while the agency hosts the impressively thorough Apollo Flight Journal and Apollo Lunar Surface Journal Web sites, which offer full transcripts and some playable recordings of the air-to-ground audio for Apollo missions 7 to 17, these sites were built, and are still maintained, by a dedicated corps of volunteers.
One of them is Stephen Slater, a 31-year-old independent archivist based in Sheffield, England, who, though he has no formal background in aerospace, has amassed one of the world’s most impressive libraries of Apollo film footage. Slater’s pet project—or demented passion, depending upon how you look at it—is to synch the soundless 16-mm. footage that NASA cameramen shot at Mission Control during Apollo 11 to the audio recordings that survive. This involves poring over old, haphazardly catalogued snippets of film in search of visual clues—such as a clock face visible in the frame, indicating the time—and then matching this information to the time stamps in the transcripts, and then trying to locate the corresponding dialogue in NASA’s vast trove of audio, whether from the air-to-ground transmissions or the flight director’s loop, the master channel on which all of the mission’s flight controllers in Houston communicated with their chief.
It’s an incredibly tedious process, but rewarding when it pays off. “When I got Gene Kranz saying, ‘We’re go for landing,’ it was like, Oh my God!,” Slater told me. Kranz was the flight director on duty at the time of the lunar module’s descent, and was later memorably portrayed in all of his brush-cut, vest-wearing splendor by Ed Harris in Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13. Slater assembled a clip in which Kranz is seen issuing his historic command, followed immediately by another synched shot in which Charlie Duke, then on duty as CAPCOM—the capsule communicator, a ground-based astronaut whose job it is to communicate directly with the crew of the spacecraft—relays Kranz’s command to Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module: “Eagle, Houston. You’re go for landing, over.” Not since these events originally occurred had it been possible to simultaneously see and hear them play out.
Slater was conscripted by Miller to apply his expertise to Apollo 11. The sound-synched shots, Slater said, “remove any suggestion that this is generic footage. It makes it so much more powerful to me, knowing that we are watching the actual moment, almost as if Todd had been shooting in there with his own film crew.”
Slater’s efforts were complemented by the work of another esteemed member of the space-nerd firmament, Ben Feist. By profession, the 47-year-old Feist is the head of technology at an ad agency in Toronto. But he spends the better part of his off-hours applying his formidable coding skills to the creation of such astonishing reconstitutions of space history as Apollo17.org, which he launched three years ago, aggregating publicly available audio, transcripts, and moving and still images into an immersive “real-time mission experience” of humankind’s most recent trip to the moon. (He also happens to be the older brother of Leslie Feist, the Canadian singer-songwriter who performs as Feist.)
Through his correspondence with NASA, Feist learned of a bounty of newly available mission audio that no filmmaker had worked with. During the Apollo era, the agency had two 30-track tape recorders running concurrently in Houston that captured not only the flight director’s commands to his subordinates, but also all the so-called back-room loops, the channels through which NASA’s various headset-wearing controllers and support teams communicated with one another.
“If you picture the people sitting in Mission Control, each one is sitting at a different station,” Feist told me. “And if you want to hear what the flight dynamics officer was talking about with the guidance officer at a certain moment, you just turn on those two channels, and you can hear what those guys were saying.”
Until recently, it was nigh on impossible to hear what any of these guys were saying, because the antique, analog 30-track recordings had been neither digitized nor separated into their component tracks. But in a timely stroke of good fortune for Miller, a team of sound engineers at the University of Texas at Dallas recently completed a multi-year, labor-intensive program to transform these tapes—which include upwards of 10,000 hours of audio for Apollo 11 alone, spread over 60 channels—into digital files.
Slater clued in Miller to the files, and Feist wrote software to improve their fidelity. reducing the recordings’ flutter and wow, audio terms for the speed and pitch variations that arise from tape and recording irregularities. “You could still tell what the controllers are saying,” Feist said of the pre-cleanup audio, “but they all sound worried, like their voices are wavering. And nobody was worried.”
For Miller and Petersen, this cleaned-up 30-track audio was another means with which to tell the story of the mission in the present tense. One of its most fraught moments, familiar to space nerds but not to the general public, occurred just seven and a half minutes before the scheduled touchdown on the moon, causing fleeting but legitimate concern that the mission would have to be aborted. An alarm reading “1202” went off on the guidance computer of the lunar module, Eagle—not once but several times, and was soon joined by a second alarm reading “1201.” Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin was familiar with these codes.
This set off a scramble at Mission Control in Houston to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, a 24-year-old flight-software specialist who worked in one of the back rooms, Jack Garman, quickly determined what was happening—an “executive overflow,” or data overload, that was not mission-threatening. His reassurance was relayed up the chain of command and into outer space, in time for Eagle to land.
This episode is glancingly depicted in First Man. But thanks to the 30-track audio, the 1202 program-alarm story can be heard in Apollo 11 in its full vérité unfolding—you actually hear the kid savior, Garman, telling his guidance officer, Steve Bales, that if the alarm doesn’t reoccur, Eagle should be go for landing.
The Apollo 11 controllers didn’t just speak to each other about matters pertaining to the mission, either; in the movie, the audio finds them talking about their personal lives, and what was going on in the world. Petersen’s ears perked up when he heard a controller report for a graveyard shift early on July 20, having just come from a diner. “He’s on the loop,” Petersen said, “and he says, ‘Did you guys hear about Ted Kennedy?’”
The Chappaquiddick incident, in which Kennedy drove his car off a bridge near Martha’s Vineyard and fled the scene of the accident, leaving his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, to die in the submerged vehicle, had occurred just two days before—and temporarily knocked Apollo 11 off of the front page. It’s a useful reminder of the fraught context in which the mission took place—with the Vietnam War ongoing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy still in recent memory, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the civil-rights leader and King’s successor as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leading a protest at Cape Canaveral on the eve of the rocket launch, critiquing the “distorted sense of national priorities” that saw the federal government underwriting a trip to the moon while not doing enough to help America’s earthbound poor.
One of the movie’s most powerful musical cues comes from another bit of fortuitously found audio. The night before the controllers spoke about Chappaquiddick, the astronauts, on the eve of the moon landing, were out of ground range, yakking amongst themselves aboard the command module, Columbia. (Collins: “Amazing how quickly you adapt. Why, it doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the moon going by, you know?”) Petersen was listening to this on-board audio when something caught his attention: while the three men were inspecting the condition of the lunar module, which Armstrong and Aldrin would be flying the next day, Aldrin casually said, “Let’s get some music.” And then Petersen picked up some faint baritone singing in the background. He initially took this to be a Johnny Cash song, but, after listening for more clues, he determined that what he was hearing was “Mother Country,” by the singer-songwriter John Stewart, off of Stewart’s then-latest album, California Bloodlines.
As it turns out, NASA, ever mindful of efficiency, equipped each crew member with a Sony TC-50 cassette recorder, a sort of proto-Walkman, for the purpose of logging mission notes verbally rather than with pen and paper. Rather than blast off with only blank cassettes, the astronauts took tapes that had been pre-filled with music befitting their tastes by NASA’s friends in the music industry, most notably the record-company executive Mickey Kapp. While Armstrong went with a rather on-the-nose choice, a recording of Music Out of the Moon, a 1947 album of otherworldly theremin music, Aldrin opted for a more eclectic array of recently released adult-contemporary pop and rock.
“Mother Country,” a bittersweet, not un-Cash-esque ballad about American heroism and the elastic meaning of the phrase “the good old days,” proved a perfect allegorical fit for the film. Miller and Petersen sought permission from Stewart’s widow, Buffy Ford Stewart, to use the song in Apollo 11, and she was happy to oblige; she and her late husband, it transpired, had been good friends in the 60s with some of the Mercury astronauts.
Early one morning this past summer, I joined a small group of people who had gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., for a private screening of Apollo 11’s first 30 minutes. On the giant screen, the film looked spectacular, in particular the launch: infernal and rumbling up close, as the Saturn V’s five F-1 engines burn 5,700 pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen per second, and a gorgeous spectacle from a patch of grass few miles away, where a young woman in purple-tinted bubble sunglasses takes photos with her camera, smiling as she snaps.
When the lights came up in the museum’s Imax theater, Miller took questions and comments from the audience. One fellow near the back, at age 87 the oldest at the gathering, happened to be a former director of the Air and Space Museum. He pronounced what he had just witnessed “magnificent.” He did note, however, that the film’s launch sequence, as effective as he found it, doesn’t quite capture the jerky lateral motion that the astronauts felt after liftoff, which he likened to being inside “a wide car being driven by a novice down a narrow road.” One might have been inclined to ask the old-timer how he could be so damned sure of this, were it not for the fact that he was none other than Michael Collins, Major General U.S.A.F. (Ret.) and NASA astronaut from 1963 to 1970.
Armstrong’s two sons, Rick and Mark, were also present at the screening. As boys, aged 12 and 6, respectively, they had watched the launch live with their mother, from a boat in the Banana River, near Cape Canaveral. Of Miller’s film, Rick Armstrong told me afterward, “The combination of the footage quality and the way it was edited made me feel like I was watching it in real time.”
If anything, Apollo 11, in its hi-res, hi-fi revisitation of those nine days in 1969, invites further curiosity about what great untapped tales of the mission remain to be told. Who, for example, is the lone woman controller seen among all the men in white shirts and skinny black neckties as the camera pans over the “firing room” at Kennedy Space Center on the day of the launch, in the third row back? What were the circumstances that placed her there?
Actually, I tracked her down and spoke with her. Her name is JoAnn Morgan, and she was a 28-year-old instrumentation controller at the time—and the only woman permitted in the firing room once it was locked down at T minus 30 minutes. “Just short of 500 men and me,” she said with a laugh. Morgan had worked for NASA almost since its inception, starting as an engineer’s aide during her summers off from the University of Florida. But Apollo 11 marked the first time she was working a mission as a senior-level controller. Morgan later learned that her very presence in the room had been the subject of serious discussion, with the matter going all the way up to Kennedy Space Center’s director, Kurt Debus, one of the elite German rocket scientists who came to the U.S. after World War II as part of Wernher von Braun’s team.
“It was no big deal to Dr. Debus,” Morgan told me. Still, she said, she experienced “tidbits of resistance” regarding her presence in the Apollo program. “I got obscene phone calls on my telephone at my console a couple of times,” she said. And, like Dr. Katherine Johnson in the movie Hidden Figures, Morgan had to trek to a completely different building in order to use a bathroom, albeit in her case for a different discriminatory reason—not because of segregation but because there simply wasn’t a women’s bathroom in the building where she worked.
All by herself, JoAnn Morgan would make for a pretty good documentary. As it is, she is a flicker on the screen—a thread in the Apollo 11 tapestry. Ben Feist, hopeful of weaving back together as many of these threads as possible, is building a companion Web site to the Apollo 11 movie that will be like his Apollo 17 site but even more thorough, with clickable access to the flight controllers’ audio channels and the opportunity for users to offer their own commentary and contributions.
“If you find something on one of the channels,” he said, “you’ll be able to open up a discussion in a forum and say, ‘Hey, I found this thing. What is it?’ Because there’s real interesting things in there.” As engrossing as it is, Apollo 11 is not the last word on Apollo 11.
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— The supercalifragilistic Lin-Manuel Miranda
— The Golden Globes are quirky—and that’s a good thing
— How The Sopranos gave us Trump training wheels
— Rocko’s Modern Life was even loonier than you thought
— The year’s best movies, according to our critic
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.