Documentary Review: “First to the Moon” remembers the non-landing Apollo 8 mission

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“First to the Moon” is a delightful new “in their own words” account of America’s first actual mission to the moon — Apollo 8.

No, the crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders — didn’t land on the surface. That was Apollo 11, and in truth, the narration-free “Apollo 11” documentary is the new gold standard for spaceflight history in film form.

But the three astronauts provide personal history, wry commentary about lots of context in their discussion of this rare upbeat moment from 1968, the most roiled year in American history since the Civil War.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, a year rocked by political assassinations and protest marches.

And here were these three guys from the Brylcreem generation, racing to beat the Russians to the moon, a race that very much seemed like a toss-up from this side of the Earth.

In droll anecdotes about their early years, the differing paths each took to NASA, accidents and near-accidents as children, barely missing combat as Navy pilots (Anders and Lovell), flunking this astronaut test, back for another try, missing out on getting into Annapolis, the trio weave an interesting tale of “The Right Stuff: The Second Generation.”

Borman reminds us that the USSR had just done a dry run of their heavy-lift lunar rocket, sending a spacecraft into lunar orbit and bringing it back to Earth. Borman and his crew were moved up from Apollo 9 on the schedule in a rushed mission to at least achieve that same feat, testing most of the Saturn V/Apollo systems for an orbital flight.

Borman admits that they were all “So oriented towards beating the Russians, so absorbed” in their work that the assassinations, the war and the protests of that tumultuous year “didn’t have a large impact on us.”

He takes more than a little satisfaction in recollecting that “The Cold War had three battles. Korea we tied, Vietnam we lost, in Space we won.”

The Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts was fresh on everybody’s mind. Two of the men, Lovell and Borman, were Gemini program vets, and in describing his Gemini mission, Lovell brings up the workmanship at NASA’s contractors (North American Aviation among them) at the time, the loose washers and leftover parts floating into view when they hit weightlessness in Gemini 7.

Later, director Paul J. Hildebrandt has fun contrasting the spaceflight veterans’ experience of Apollo 8’s liftoff to that of the understated, outspoken Anders.

Saturn V was “an old man’s booster,” no more than 6Gs, Borman muses.

Anders: “I felt like I was being catapulted through the instrument panel.”

It was a bit loud, Borman remembers.

Anders: “It was so noisy, you couldn’t speak…couldn’t communicate. Couldn’t think.”

Later, we hear them comically bicker over who gets what camera as they come around the moon and scramble to get one of the most famous photographs in history, Anders’ “Earthrise.”

Cute anecdotes about the two Annapolis (Naval Academy) guys (Lovell, Anders) giving the West Point man a hard time for getting space sick, then sea sick (on landing) give “First to the Moon” a little comical color. Anders describes, in lurid detail, the weightless ball of vomit Borman upchucked and slowly floated “right towards Lovell, SPLAT, split up like a fried egg RIGHT on his chest.”

“First to the Moon” isn’t the first film on this subject — PBS did a “Nova” episode on it a few years back. And it isn’t the best Apollo moon mission doc ever.

But it’s still valuable oral history, capturing three of the most articulate astronauts while they’re still alive, still able to summon up what they recall, still the red-blooded All American embodiment of “The Right Stuff.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell

Credits: Directed by Paul J. Hildebrandt. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 2:01

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