Backyard Wonders

Jul 8, 2009

I’ll never forget that first step on the moon. I was at the home of a high school classmate in Fort Worth on the evening of July 20, 1969. The Eagle had landed that afternoon, and we’d been waiting for hours for the men inside to venture out. Hamburgers grilled on the backyard patio, twenty feet from the TV in the living room, and I wandered back and forth as the moon slowly rose in a clear sky.

The launch of Apollo 11, three days before, had been precisely scheduled so that Neil Armstrong would have the sun behind him, at an angle between 7 and 12 degrees, as he made his approach to the Sea of Tranquility. This was the optimum angle to cast long shadows from crater lips and boulders and help define the treacherous alien landing site. And because that rocky sea was in the eastern lunar quadrant, it meant I looked up at a quarter moon in the Texas sky. It seemed as far away as it always had.

The television showed people like me around the earth, all waiting breathlessly for Armstrong and Aldrin to emerge. I’d watch for a while, listening to experts and commentators attempt to describe what was happening, then I’d walk back outside and look up. It was hard to reconcile the familiar TV image with that remote world; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The event was at once too close and too distant, too transcendent for my boyish mind to swallow whole. A sense of unreality developed as the evening passed.

By the time Armstrong made his entrance, I was completely dislocated. On the TV, he climbed down the ladder to the same bright lunar surface that illuminated the yard where I stood, lost in the moment. It was utterly surreal to me, and awakened wonderment.

Those feelings never left me. Eventually, I channeled them into a film that consumed me for several years. I tracked down and pestered all the men who went to the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin and the ten who followed them onto the surface, plus the other dozen who went all but the last fifty miles. Twenty of them let me turn on my tape recorder while I asked variations of the endless question: What was it like?

I looked at all the film they brought back, and the kinescope transfers of the video they broadcast, and the miles of earthly footage that NASA shot in the course of their adventure. I listened to the radio transmissions and the flight controller’s loop, and I read the debriefings and the books they wrote afterward. I tried to get inside their experience, so I could identify with it and finally make it real.

For All Mankind
is the product of my journey. How well it captures the actual journey is not for me to say—it’s only a movie—but I can say the moon seems friendlier now than it did forty years ago. I think it’s because we sent music and laughter there.