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Man’s landing on the moon was a spectacular technical and scientific achievement – but David Sington wanted to show the emotional, human side, as he gets the astronauts to recall how they felt, not just what they did, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

In July 1969, Englishman David Sington was just a kid; he watched the moon landing in excited Spanish, next door to the family’s holiday apartment in a small Spanish town. Local time was 4am. “That was the latest I’d ever stayed up,” he recalls as he is whisked through Sydney to promote the film he has now made that celebrates that moment – and many others in the Apollo space program, In the Shadow of the Moon.

He stepped outside and looked up in awe at the moon, trying to imagine Neil Armstrong standing there. It remains one of his clearest childhood memories, and only now when making his latest documentary did it dawn on him that his seeing it Spanish was symbolic of the event. “Nationality didn’t matter – it was one of us, us humans, up there.”

"fascinated by science"

David is fascinated by science, although he is quick to point out he is no space buff. But his producer Dr Duncan Copp, born after man had landed on the moon, has a PhD in Planetary Geology and has worked with NASA. It was Duncan who knew astronaut Dave Scott, and who proposed the idea of a reunion of astronauts from the Apollo days and record it on film.

David has over 40 producer and series producer credits for prime-time factual programmes on the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS. His films have been shown by 30 different broadcasters in 22 countries. His portfolio includes the acclaimed BBC series Earth Story, for which he was series producer and received the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism, presented to him by the American Geophysical Union in 1999, and Project Poltergeist which won a Grierson Award in 2004.

When the idea of the astronaut reunion was presented to him, David was hooked. “I was drawn to it because it is a completely unique human experience. Nobody else has ever had that experience. How did that experience affect them? So it was not so much about how man went to the moon – that’s been done. In this project, it is much more personal, it’s about them, the astronauts, their characters, the emotional context.”

Pictures of astronauts in their space suits make them all look identical; their personalities and characters vanish behind the helmet. “The communications with Houston that we have all heard are all very cool and technical,” says David, “but the tapes of the on-board conversations are anything but. They’re full of human responses, enthusiasm, excitement … so the film allows us to see the world through their eyes.”

"a radical time"

The other aspect of the film that is noteworthy is the socio-political context of the era. It was a time of rapid social transformation, with civil rights at the top of the list. It was the 60s and every institution was being challenged, mores and morals were transforming. It was a radical time –and the astronauts, who looked so square with their short back and sides haircut amid the hair generation, were also doing the most radical things man has done in space.

Of all the astronauts who speak to camera remembering and reconstructing the Apollo missions, the one who is missing is the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. But David Sington has realised it’s for the best. “I tried hard to persuade him to be in it at first,” he says, “and it was a very difficult task to get any of them involved actually. They’re very busy and you have to book them up about a year ahead! And Neil did think about it, but in the end he wrote me an interesting letter explaining why he doesn’t want to talk about his personal feelings. He said it’s missing the point. He’s always seen himself as a representative – a bit like the Unknown Soldier, perhaps. He prefers not to focus on something HE did.”

And that’s why we still talk about man landing on the moon – not Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.

Published: March 6, 2008

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David Sington


Dir. David Sington

Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft were hurled at the moon and 12 men walked on it. The surviving crew members from every Apollo mission which flew to the moon come together to tell their stories of danger, pride and passion, illustrated with clips of remastered archival footage from NASA, much of it never seen by the public.
Australian release: March 6, 2008

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