For All Mankind, or just for scientists?

Apollo 11’s Command Module
For the next two years, Apollo 11’s Command Module Columbia and 14 one-of-a-kind artifacts from the historic mission will travel the United States.

In an essay published recently in the New York Times, novelist Thomas Mallon made a provocative comment: "If any real scandal attaches to Project Apollo, it’s the extent to which hard science was allowed to dominate the astronauts’ hours on the moon. With less geology and more ontology, they might have kept the public fired up for further space exploration."

It sounds harsh, even anti-science (heresy!), but I understand what Mallon means. Most of the men who went to the moon now say they regret not having had more time to savor the experience. They rushed around like rock-collecting robots, ever mindful of the checklist and the voice of Mission Control, and had to steal whatever time they could to pause, look around, and react like human beings to the alien world on which they'd landed. What a shame, for them and for us.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Al Reinert must have felt the same regret when he set out to make his Oscar-nominated 1989 documentary For All Mankind—which still stands as the best film ever done on Apollo. Reinert almost singlehandedly changed the tone of Apollo reminiscences from grand-scale techno-worship to a focus on the individuals who journeyed to the moon. Instead of learning how many pounds of rocks he collected, we hear Charlie Duke recount a weird and vivid dream about finding his own body and that of fellow Apollo 16 astronaut John Young on the moon. Instead of triumphal music, we get Brian Eno's eerie, ambient soundtrack. It's Apollo as a personal story, scaled down but every bit as powerful as the bombastic narratives about national glory and heroism we'd been served before Reinert came along.

For All Mankind was re-released this summer on DVD and Blu-ray, with extras including An Accidental Gift, a mini-feature on the making of the film, in which Reinert claims that the film shot by the Apollo astronauts—not the geological samples—was the real treasure returned from the moon. Here's a clip:

NASA is once again thinking of sending people to the moon, "this time to stay," as the rallying cry goes. And once again, scientists are planning a busy schedule of fieldwork. Which is fine. For all the talk of expanding human civilization to the moon and Mars, nobody suggests what individual people might do there, other than tending science experiments or some grim corporate mining operation. But if we do return, this time could we please give the astronauts an occasional break to think/ write / sing / play/ take pictures/ meditate or do whatever else it is that human beings like to do, left to their own devices?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.