Behind the scenes of Apollo 11

As a space nerd, speaking to people who have landed on the moon is probably a normal person’s version of meeting Beyoncé and the Yankees on the same day. For Todd Douglas Miller, not only did he get to meet one of his heroes, Michael Collins, he also got to spend thousands of hours watching footage of him, and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.

Not only was it like meeting Beyoncé and the Yankees – it was then also being front-row at Coachella, and in the dugout of Game 7 of the World Series.

Miller is the director of Apollo 11 – the new documentary about the epic feat of putting humanity on the moon. The doco was released this week – and it is even more exhilarating, fascinating and eye opening than you’d expect. From the fury of Saturn V liftoff, to the wonder of seeing Earth from another planet, and the incredible effort from hundreds of thousands of workers galvanized towards a single, world-changing goal.

And then there’s me – a space obsessed musician who calls herself an astronaut. Documentaries like Apollo 11 fuel my passion and inspire the dream of maybe, one day, getting the chance to experience just a fraction of what Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong did.

So, when the call came that Miller wanted to chat with me, the opportunity to experience meeting and telling the story of our shared heroes through him was too good to pass up. And while I was a mixture of excitement and nerves, he was equally excited to talk about space, learning new things, and conspiracy theories.

My heart rate jumped when my phone rang, and I tried to sound professional. Big breath Alex – you’ve got this.

The mission spoke for itself

“So, Todd, how do you create drama and tension when the storyline of landing on the moon is really well known?”

“It was almost a case and point of you get out of the way of it. Seeing other space films, they tend to get over edited or way too much music on them. With this, particularly with the amount of footage we had, we had to let it speak for itself,” he replies.

“It had to be as accurate and true to the scene and the moment and that’s it.”

And as for the drama, Miller says, it was already in the story.

“They had little tasks to do with their lives on the line. There were amazingly complex challenges that they have to overcome but every time they did, it gave us a dramatic moment and then a release from it. Then you move on to the next thing. By the end, you’ve gone through nine or ten life or death situations and then you get to take a breath.”

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Mike Collins in the Command Module simulator prior to launch. Credit: NASA

The overlooked hero of the Apollo 11 moon landing

However, as with any good movie, it wasn’t just about the plot. Miller also had to think about the characters – in this case, the astronauts themselves. With the three men at the centre of the story, I was intrigued to find out what Todd thought of them.

“All three of them are cut from the same cloth,” he says – in part confirming “The Right Stuff” that all astronauts have.

But there was one overlooked character that stuck out to Miller.

“Michael Collins, personally, was a real hero of mine. He tends to get overlooked because he didn’t land on the moon, he just drove the car that got them there basically,” says Miller.

“But he wrote a fantastic book in 1974 called “Carrying the Fire” which is one of my favourite all time books. He actually wrote it himself which is highly unusual for astronauts. He’s so charming and witty in that book, I read it years and years ago and I re-read it before we started working on the film. When I got to meet him and talk with him, it was just the guy that I’d heard about and certainly I’d read about.

“And the same could be said about Buzz Aldrin. Unfortunately Neil Armstrong passed away before we started working on the film. But Eric and Mark, who are Neil’s sons, were really instrumental with the film and just with sharing some insights. When we did have bits of audio that we wanted to use, particularly with the on-board stuff, you got a real sense of what his personality was like, which was then reinforced by his family. It was a really humbling experience for me personally to work with those guys.”

Documentary research uncovered unknown information

At the end of the day, it’s three men and a mission that most people think they know a lot about. But that didn’t stop the documentary team from finding out some new aspects to Apollo 11 – some which even caught NASA themselves unaware.

“In our research, we uncovered a lot of things that were previously unknown and that’s really the work of NASA’s history office. They did such an amazing job any time we had a challenge. For example, we were looking at some of the photographs and it didn’t look like they could take those photographs the way the command module was orientated on the way out to the moon.

“So we challenged NASA’s history office and they actually dug some evidence from MIT’s flight dynamics crew from back then and we were able to depict exactly what the command module stack was doing and that was depicted in the film.

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Buzz Aldrin descends from the Lunar Lander. Credit: NASA

“It was also the human things that stood out for me, you know when there’s the on-board audio from when they get to the moon. They’re just looking at it and commenting on it. They’ve been trained and it was a really scientific thing, they had to give descriptions constantly of what they were seeing. But they were like little kids when they got there you know, they’re just talking about the colours and the rocks, which is what they were trained to do but to see the excitement and hear them – it must have been just a magical event and that’s something that was probably one of the highlights of the film.”

When I think of space exploration and the Apollo 11 mission, it makes me wonder and think about our place in the universe. Having been so close to the Apollo missions making the film, I wondered whether Todd had the same feelings.

“For my previous film I spent a lot of time out in the field with paleontologists. We were out in the Badlands, and someone reminded me that all that light that’s shining down on you from those stars has traveled millions and millions of years, and you’re looking at dinosaur bones that have been there for millions of years – and kind of you’re stuck in this precious moment in time. I definitely felt that even more so working on this film.

“In the future we’ll look back and think what a marvelous time and group of achievements they were. That we were able to accomplish this is just astounding.”

And while that seemed like a good point to leave our chat, I couldn’t help but ask Todd one final cheeky question.

But what about the conspiracy theories?

“What do you have to say to people who deny the moon landing after watching zillions of hours of footage on it?”

Todd laughs. “I get entertained by the kind of conspiracies that there are like millions of all of us that all conspired and that the moon landing didn’t happen. The US government can’t keep a secret longer than an hour I don’t know how they could possibly do that for fifty years.”

However, Miller does admit that if the moon landing was fake, it would have made his documentary much more interesting.

“Look, I was hoping that we would find like Stanley Kubrick in the corner or a light in the background, it probably would have made for a more fascinating documentary.”

But, Miller didn’t. What he found instead was one of the most engrossing documentaries about the Apollo missions.

There’s footage never seen before, and the awe-inspiring vision of a Saturn V taking off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. You’ll have a whole new appreciation not only for the three men in a capsule, but for that mass of people on the ground who made it happen. Go see it, it’s rad.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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