Film-maker Theo Kamecke enjoyed unlimited access to NASA during the Apollo 11 Moon landing 40 years ago. He recalls the event with Jon Perks.
Few people realise a rather nondescript wheelchair played its own small part in the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
Theo Kamecke was at the controls, using it to steer his cameraman up and down the aisles of Launch Control, Cape Kennedy, as he recorded every momentous minute in July 1969.
The young film-maker – who, after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, arguably had the best seat in the house – had been commissioned just six weeks before to make a documentary, or ‘time capsule’ as NASA liked to call it.
Given carte blanche by the US space agency, the resulting film, Moonwalk One, became an epic record of eight days that changed the world forever.
“I tell you, at the time I thought ‘wow, this is a great opportunity’, and then of course I was afraid that NASA might be the sort of organisation that would want a laundry list to film,” says Kamecke, now 71.
“I talked with the guy at NASA and he said: ‘look, I know there’s not going to be any great interest in this film after it’s finished – people are gonna be pretty well stuffed with space programmes, so just be a time capsule’ and I said: ‘wow, thank you, that’s music to my ears’, and NASA never interfered with whatever I wanted to do, they gave me complete access to anything I asked for; it was just great.”
Having selected his film crews and chosen where each would be and what they would be recording, Kamecke decided he would put himself at the heart of the action – among the hundreds of scientists and technicians at Launch Control:
“I got issued with a badge which looked like a strange hand printed thing, which was the only badge they ever issued to a non-NASA person for access to this room,” Theo recalls.
“Even the cameraman was a NASA employee, and they wouldn’t allow any other equipment in there, just the camera, so I said to someone ‘could you get me the wheelchair please?’ and they said ‘what wheelchair?’ and I said ‘every building has a wheelchair...’ and I pushed the cameraman up and down the aisles in a wheelchair, and they couldn’t really consider that a piece of equipment, I guess.”
Blasting off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 would take four days to reach the Moon. Watched by an estimated 600 million people – a fifth of the world’s population at the time – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would first enter its orbit, before the Lunar Module – codenamed Eagle – separated from the Command Module, Columbia, and begin its descent to the lunar surface.
All did not go to plan, however; unusual 1201 and 1202 ‘program alarms’ sounded, suggesting the craft’s computer was malfunctioning, and, having overshot their intended target point, commander Armstrong was forced to take manual control of Eagle and find a suitable landing spot. With seconds to spare before they left themselves with insufficient fuel to be able to take off again, Armstrong notified Mission Control: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Mission Control was a very different kind of place [to Launch Control]” Kamecke recalls.
“A much smaller room, kind of darkish, sort of comfortable, almost laid back kind of place where astronauts would stroll into the back of the room and chat with some of the controllers or with each other and find out how the mission was doing... it was kind of fun.
“Even at the point where they were coming down toward the lunar surface and the computer on the spacecraft crashed, so Armstrong had to take over control himself and glide it in and try to miss a crater, if you’d looked around the room you wouldn’t have realised something terrible was about to happen, it was so quiet.
“I kind of glanced over at somebody and raised my eyebrows and said ‘what’s going on?’ and they just said ‘the computer’s crashed’!”
Originally released the following year, Moonwalk One is so much more than a simple record of events in Florida, Houston and the Sea of Tranquility. Filming everywhere from Stonehenge (for the opening sequence) to the International Latex Corporation, where the astronauts’ spacesuits were made, Kamecke created an epic film which Newsweek described as ‘a companion piece to 2001’.
“We filmed in a lot of places,” he says. “We filmed where these little old ladies made the spacesuits – it just struck me as funny that these women with sewing machines that literally dated from 1900 were dressing the spacemen!”
Kamecke also visited Armstrong’s home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, the day before his homecoming parade, where a chance meeting gave the filmmaker another fascinating insight into the Moon landing:
“We happened to have Armstrong’s address and so we drove out and there, sitting on the porch was an old woman,” Theo remembers.
“I stepped out of the car and just chatted to her, she happened to be Neil Armstrong’s grandmother and she mentioned that she’d made her grandson promise the first thing he’d do on stepping on the Moon was to say a prayer.
“I noticed when he stepped onto the Moon there was this overly-long pause after he stepped down onto the surface, before he said: ‘that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’; isn’t that a nice thing? The first man to step onto the Moon said a prayer.”
Kamecke is also quick to add his opinion to the long standing debate of what Armstrong’s first words on the Moon actually were. For four decades experts have debated whether he actually said ‘a man’ rather than simply ‘man’, the former making more sense to distinguish an individual from the whole human race.
Theo is in no doubt: “I was in Mission Control and I heard clearly that he said ‘one small step for a man’; somehow even when it was recorded you didn’t hear that, and my theory is that the feed to Mission Control was one feed and the feed that went to the recording machines was another, and somehow that feed lost it.
“...and by the way,” he adds. “That stuff that he said? He made that up himself – nobody would ever tell an astronaut what to say.”
Forty years on, Kamecke was approached by British production company The Attic Room, makers of the acclaimed film In The Shadow of the Moon, to resurrect Moonwalk One.
Taking the 2,000-feet reels of original film he had been storing ‘literally under my desk’, he and the British team transferred the 35mm print to high definition quality, reframed it and added a specially created 5.1 surround sound mix.
“I was just waiting for someone to come along – I didn’t know what the hell else to do with it and I knew that somebody might come after it at some point,” says Theo, who turned his back on the film industry over 20 years ago, in favour of a new career in sculpture.
* Moonwalk One – The Director’s Cut is out now on DVD.