Written by Science

Apollo 11: James Burke and Helen Sharman

Earlier this week I was thrilled to be able to go to the Science Museum where they were both screening Apollo 11 on their IMAX screen, and following it with a conversation between Helen Sharman and James Burke.

Burke, now in his eighties, is as sharp as ever, and it seems a real shame that hes long been off our screens. He was there because he had co-anchored the BBC’s coverage of the moon landings, including Apollo 11, back in 1969. Sharman is of course the first British astronaut – or technically cosmonaut – having flown on a Soyuz rocket up the Mir space station.

The film is spectacular. I should mention that I only saw the short version – the “First Steps Edition” – which is essentially a 48 minute cut-down of the 93 minute full documentary which I suspect is aimed at IMAX screens in museums where they can run multiple features a day for visitors.

Nonetheless, it’s a spectacular piece of film. It’s entirely made from footage shot by NASA at the time. Famously, the space race cost billions, and when you’re spending that much, you don’t stint on using the best cameras you can. So they shot some sequences in 70mm – which of course still looks exceptional, especially on a big screen.

There aren’t any voiceovers or talking heads – instead the film relies on people speaking at the time, with NASA providing people at the time to guide the watching world’s media with an idea of what’s happening.

There were cameras everywhere, and much of the footage is just stunning. The only real addition has been to score the film – with Matt Morton providing a powerful set of cues that help drive the narrative.

The sound has also been tweaked and improved. While there are lots of recordings of everything, I’d imagine that someone has digitally cleaned up some of the audio as best they can. Certainly when the Saturn V rocket blasts off, the deafening noise in the auditorium gives audiences a taste of what it was like in person – even several miles away from the launch site where spectators were allowed. After the film Burke attested that you could feel the power of those engines on your body even from a distance.

The film is well worth catching in as large a screen as you can see it. I may well go back and watch the full length version.

Afterwards, there was a really good conversation between Burke and Sharman. When she was growing up, Sharman had watched Burke on series like Tomorrow’s World and was a fan. Burke of course, was surely jealous that Sharman actually got to go to space!

As I say, it’s a shame that Burke has been so under-utilised of late. Connections and The Day the Universe Changed are both remarkable series. While series one of the former is available on DVD, the latter is only available as a pricey US import in NTSC.

Burke was entertaining throughout, telling us how he’d got to fly in the ‘vomit comet’ – the plane that flew parabolas to give short bursts of weightlessness to its passengers. Sharman told us stories of her time in space.

A thoroughly entertaining evening.

There are of course lots of documentaries and specials on TV and radio at the moment celebrating the moon landings.

  • I’m looking forward to watching Chasing the Moon, a PBS series that covers the whole space race.
  • I’ve just bought a newly released Blu Ray copy of the HBO drama series From Earth to the Moon. This never really got much attention in the UK, with Channel 4 showing it on Saturday afternoons as I recall! It comes from Tom Hanks and goes through the whole Apollo program, even finding a different way to tell the Apollo 13 story – the film from Tom Hanks having already told the story from the astronauts’ perspective.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon is a fantastic podcast series from the BBC World Service presented by Kevin Fong and including lots of interviews and audio. Well worth your time.
  • Stargazing: Moon Landing Special was good fun – with Dara O’Brien and Brian Cox. Let’s hope we get some more Stargazing episodes in the future.
  • I’ve yet to watch 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, but I hear it’s good.
  • And BBC Four has a stack of other programmes too including a Sky at Night special.
  • Radio 4 has made a drama called Moon using transcripts from the flight.
  • And very excitingly, there’s a full hour of James Burke on Saturday night!

And all of this ignores other programmes on ITV, Channel 4 and Discovery amongst others…

(And I am very tempted by this)