While the space shuttle program was omnipresent for space buffs born in recent generations, Apollo is an unknown quantity in the sense that many enthusiasts were not yet born. While the program lives through countless books and documentaries, many, including this author, did not get a direct taste of the thrill associated with experiencing Apollo. Enter Stephen Slater, a young filmmaker whose work archiving Apollo-era footage and syncing audio with the footage is capturing the imaginations of space enthusiasts. While much of the generic Apollo footage has been shown previously in various documentaries, it was never before synced with the “live” soundtrack of events taking place.
Some of Slater’s accomplishments in this vein include syncing the Apollo 11 landing footage of Mission Control with the audio, featuring CAPCOM and Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke; this clip (featured in this 2010 Guardian article) gives an emotional immediacy to what may be the most significant moment in manned spaceflight history, perhaps second only to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon:
A recently released clip by Slater shows Apollo 10 commander Thomas P. Stafford chatting jovially with lunar module pilot Gene Cernan as they make their way around the dark side of the Moon. This clip, synced with the audio, gives the viewer a very real feeling of what it must have been to be inside a lunar module, flying around the Moon. The effect is dreamlike, surreal, and compelling:
In an interview, Slater related that no one single event spurred his interest in spaceflight. “Ever since I was about seven, I’ve been fascinated by space, and the planets in particular. I suppose my interest in the Apollo moon landings grew from there. For me, the fact that humans have been to the Moon has always seemed so extraordinary that you can’t help but find it relentlessly fascinating,” he said.
Inspired by films including Al Reinert’s For All Mankind and James Burke’s Project Apollo, Slater became inspired to dig deeper and further tell the story of Apollo. “In the case of the Mission Control footage, the desire to synchronize audio came from the storyteller in me wanting to see the actual reactions and responses from mission controllers [such as in the Ron Howard film, Apollo 13], rather than shots which had clearly been taken from pre-flight simulations or other missions, and were just being used to plug a gap.”
He added, “Given that the Mission Control film footage generally has no sound, I think the attitude of most producers had been that it could be treated generically, and so no attempt had ever been made to work out when it had been shot, or in some cases, whether it was even from the relevant mission.” When the audio was pulled from the National Archives, which contains a wealth of spaceflight treasures for historians, filmmakers, and enthusiasts alike, Slater went to work.
As he dug deeper, he found some moments that surprised him. He said: “In terms of my ‘favorite’ and what I consider the most surprising moments, obviously everything from the Apollo 11 powered descent is by its very nature historic, and so I felt that adding the audio to this footage allowed you to really feel the tense atmosphere there must have been in the room at the time … A good example is a shot where Charlie Duke shows visible frustration due to a communication failure. This moment would have been far less powerful without the corresponding audio, as the source of his frustration was unclear.
“I was also very pleased to be able to synch up the footage and sound from mission control during the Apollo 8 TV transmission on the way to the Moon when they show a view of the full Earth. Mike Collins is the CAPCOM, and it was wonderful to see the jovial reactions from himself, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as the astronauts try and keep the earth in frame – worth pondering that last thought for a moment!” he enthused.
“Finally, I’m immensely proud of having been able to find the relevant on-board audio correlating to film footage of Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford chatting to each other in the Apollo 10 lunar module. It is one of only two pieces of existing film footage showing a lunar module crew in flight, and came during a quiet moment on the far side when they pulled the camera out to shoot some home movies of each other. The audio completely brings the clip to life, and is unique in being an on board flight film clip which now has sound.”
There are moments Slater wishes he had on film. “The obvious example is Charlie Duke’s ‘We got a bunch of guys about to turn blue’ quote from Apollo 11 … ‘Houston we have a problem’ is another famous omission Mission Control-wise, as the camera crew weren’t in the room at the time. The film the astronauts shot during the actual Apollo missions is stunning, however I really wish there was more, particularly from the lunar surface. For example, there is only one existing shot from the Apollo 17 EVA, showing Gene Cernan’s first steps.”
Slater’s latest project as an archivist involves Cernan and is simply titled The Last Man On The Moon. Directed by Mark Craig, it was recently screened at Spacefest VI in Pasadena, Calif., and the film is currently being screened independently. He discussed why the film profiles this particular moonwalker: “Well, by definition, anyone who has been to the moon is interesting. Gene, though, is kind of ‘Mr. Moonwalker’ … He lives and breathes his experiences there, is constantly out talking about it, and I think his story is a fascinating one, partly because he poignantly ended up being the last man to walk there, but also because I think people want to get behind his media persona … Gene’s also a genuinely lovely guy, and it’s been a privilege to meet him as a part of working on this film.”
Thanks to filmmaker Stephen Slater, spaceflight enthusiasts are given a more intimate feel of what it was like to be on the front lines of spaceflight history. Slater is currently working on archiving this footage; in addition, information and the trailer for The Last Man On The Moon can be accessed through the film’s website.