In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, a new documentary entitled ‘Cosmic Birth,’ produced by Rafnar Orri Gunnarsson and Örlygur (Örly) Hnefill Örlygsson, considers the spiritual, human side of this extraordinary achievement, as well as the role Iceland played in the story.
Down to Earth
The documentary is a charmingly eccentric work. Animation is interwoven with poetry and an original soundtrack; in one scene memorably depicted by a fully suited astronaut playing the squeezebox. In contrast to the often technical telling of the moon landings, ‘Cosmic Birth’ provides a more spiritual account, considering the religious and cultural significance of the moon, most strikingly by opening with a passage from a children’s book. It’s an unusual approach, and renders the documentary a little incohesive, but it’s still a welcome change from the historical narrative that often dominates accounts of the moon landings.
This looser, more reflective approach is displayed most vividly in the brilliant segments with NASA moonwalkers such as Bill Anders and Charles Duke. In a wonderfully varied series of conversations, the astronauts discuss how they first heard about NASA recruiting, expound on the beauty of the ‘Earth Rising’ photo, and discuss their families.
“What surprised me about meeting these men was how down to earth they were,” says Örly. It was also clear even from the relatively short interview segments that they were still filled with stories and recollections. “We had over twenty four hours of collective interviews. The biggest challenge was choosing which stories to include.”
A deeply human story
Perhaps the most touching and intriguing moment, however, comes when the documentary turns to Iceland’s small but significant role in the lead-up to the moon landing. In 1965 and 1967, NASA sent several groups of astronauts to Iceland for geological field trips, frequently based around Husavik, due to a suspected similarity between the basalt based Icelandic landscape and the lunar surface, a similarity that would be confirmed in the eventual 1969 moon-landing. Örly credits his discovery of this research as a key aspect in his fascination with the Apollo missions.
But the most striking aspect of this section of the film was, in stark contrast to the scientific purpose of the trip, a deeply human story. Mark Armstrong, son of Neil Armstrong, describes how he was able to spend a few weeks in Iceland on a fishing trip with his father, a time he still treasures greatly. “Neil Armstrong was trained for ten years to go to the moon, and for all the possible scenarios,” explains Örly. “But what he wasn’t trained for was the fame that came with it. People were always approaching him asking for photos or autographs, but here in Iceland he could be himself. I’m glad Iceland could give him that.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the film’s ecological message that shines through. The slogan of the film, itself a quote from astronaut Bill Anders, reads, ‘We went to the moon, but we discovered the earth.’Similar sentiments are repeated throughout the documentary.
“We asked all the astronauts about this experience of viewing the earth,” says Örly. “And this was a common theme for all of them, it was more powerful, for them, to view the earth from the moon, than the fact that they were standing on the moon itself. That tells us something about the value of our world.”
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