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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics Volume 1, 4.10.05.

A review of the NASA IMAX film,
A walk on the Moon

by Helen Gavaghan

"We choose to go to the Moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

Magnificent words spoken by the flawed and charismatic John F. Kennedy in what has become one of the iconic addresses to the United Nations by an American president in the twentieth century. The words grace the opening sequence of the latest public relations effort from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a 3D, IMAX film about the Moon landings called, Magnificent Desolation.

The film now showing in the IMAX theatre of the UK's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford showcases the words and actons of the twelve good men and true who walked on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972. It pins its colours as a product of the military- industrial complex boldly to the masthead of the opening sequence with the announcement that Lockheed-Martin supported the project financially. Its commercial credentials are fixed by the "come to bed voice" of narrator, Tom Hanks, whose Oscar-winning record lures in the audience.

Actually, having written twelve good men and true I have to query whether there is a snide undertone to my words, juxtaposing as they do the idea of a jury carefully weighing the fate of a fellow human being in the balance, with the perjoratively laden phrase military-industrial complex. Perhaps the reality of the relationship between space exploration and the military needs to be highlighted in the titles because nothing in the film is other than feel good and inspirational. Rightly so if one considers the film from the perspective of a film about the up side of space exploration. By which I mean space exploration when it is expressing the constructively and pacifically creative and ingenious side of science and human nature. The part that enabled Jim Lovell and a "thousand Ph.Ds" at NASA to bring Apollo 13 back to Earth when that Moon shot went so badly wrong.

Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 too. On that occasion as an actor. And that brings me to a point about the distinction between fact and fiction, imagination and reality. It is a blurring that has bothered me as a journalist, as it has educators and those concerned with whether TV and films inspire violence, for a long time. For example will a media studies or history student in two hundred years be able to tell from five minutes of unmarked footage of the film, "The Towering Inferno", and clips of the destruction of the World Trade Centers in September 2001 which was real?

Conceivably not.

In Magnificent Desolation the film makers go out of their way to point up the difficulty, showing footage of how the Moonwalk could have been filmed by a special effects department at the time. This bothered Susie Collinge, one of the Museum's staff whose job is to explain the Museum's collections. She thought it was imp ortant for a childrens' audience not to be confused by a seemless interspersing of special effects and reality.

A nice point, but one that did not seem to bother the children at the screening I attended any more than did the film's open acknowledgement of NASA's tight connection to the military-industrial complex, a connection of which John F. Kennedy was himself all too well aware. Later in their lives they will need that awareness. For as Sergei Korolev, the Ukraine-born engineer who master-minded the launch of the first satellite on 4th October 1957, said, "Rockets are defence and science." Today as much as then these words are true. Kennedy himself made the point during his inaugural address which was made only months before his Moon Landing speech to the United Nations. "For Man holds in his hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life ...let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors."

Now the US is planning a return to the Moon, so at the end of the film I asked three Brownies from Derbyshire who had been watching from seats behind me, "Do you want to go to the Moon?" Two puzzled expressions and one speculative gaze met mine. "I might," said the girl with the speculative gaze. Clearly she viewed the option as genuine, if only one of many.

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