July 20, 2021 will mark the 52nd anniversary of man’s first moon landing by Apollo 11 and the perfect way to celebrate the event is to watch Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary on the Apollo space program, For All Mankind (not to be confused with the 2019 TV series of the same name). For those who haven’t seen it, this is not your typical talking heads documentary. The film mixes together footage from all of the Apollo missions (as well as material from the Gemini missions) in a mesmerizing, impressionistic montage with a sound design of audio bites by various astronauts, mission control personal and newscasters (none of whom are identified on-screen) and eerie music by Brian Eno with the inevitable snippet of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprake Zarathustra” and a rendition of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” performed by Lee DeCarlo and Peter Manning Robinson. The emphasis is on the fulfillment of a seemingly impossible quest and not so much the individuals involved but there is one fascinating segment of For All Mankind which reveals some of the music selections the astronauts carried to the moon and is probably still being enjoyed in some distant galaxy right now.
Some of the favored tunes will come as no surprise such as Frank Sinatra’s version of “Fly Me to the Moon”. The Sinatra standard, which was written in 1954 and first performed by Kaye Ballard (!), was originally featured on the album, “It Might As Well Be Swing,” a collaboration between Sinatra and Count Basie in 1964. And it was played by the astronauts of Apollo 10 – Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young and Eugene A. Cernan – during their May 1969 voyage.
The cassette tape, which was compiled for the astronauts by Al Bishop, an employee of Boeing at the time, also included “Moonlight Serenade” (by Sinatra), “Going Back to Houston” by Dean Martin, and songs by the Kingston Trio. Later, Sinatra would dedicate “Fly Me to the Moon” to the Apollo 10 astronauts when he performed it on his November 1969 TV special “Sinatra.” The popular standard has also been featured in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and others.
For the Apollo 14 mission, manned by commander Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Stuart A. Roosa and Edgar D. Mitchell, Roosa received a personalized playlist from country-western star Buck Owens, thanks to a D.J. from Houston who instigated the idea. How cool is it to send a Buck Owens song to the moon but also have him record a special introduction of it for the Apollo 14 team? “Hi, this is Buck Owens with the Buckaroos. We came down to the studio and thought we’d put together a little thing that you can take along with you on your trip. Now you know when you get back they’re probably gonna put you in the movies so the first thing we’re gonna do for you is to play a little song called “Act Naturally.” It goes like this….”
“Act Naturally,” written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison and recorded by Owens in 1963, actually enjoyed some crossover success with younger audiences in 1965 when The Beatles recorded it with Ringo on the vocals. By the time of the Apollo 14 mission, which launched on January 31, 1971, the song was a country-western classic, one which Owens and Ringo Starr would re-record together in 1989.
The Apollo 16 crew – John W. Young, T. Kenneth Mattingly Jr., and Charles M. Duke Jr. – were also partial to country music and got a personal cassette from Merle Haggard who started his set with his 1971 hit, “Someday We’ll Look Back,” and this greeting: “This is something a little different for me. My name is Merle Haggard and this is my band The Strangers and I hope we’ll be able to do something you’ll enjoy hearing on the way to the moon and of course we hope that you come back but we want you to leave this tape THERE, ok?” I don’t know whether the astronauts did actually leave Haggard’s tape on the moon during their April 1972 mission but I’d like to think that Haggard’s music is a big hit on Mars and beyond.
This little interlude in For All Mankind only whets your appetite for what other music was sent into space on the other missions and who listened to what. It’s also one of the rare moments in the documentary that pauses to humanize the astronauts by showing us a glimpse of their leisure time on board when they weren’t totally preoccupied with manning the craft. Director Al Reinert, in an interview with Austin Chronicle reporter Anne S. Lewis, said he “went to great lengths to find out what music each one took and then, while I was interviewing them, I’d play that tune. They would completely space out and the music would trigger some powerful memories – it was a great way to get into these guys’ heads that was totally emotional. My goal was to get to know them really well and get each one to relax enough to talk about what it was really like instead of all the tech stuff.”
For All Mankind is indeed an emotional experience but also such a visually dazzling one that it demands to be seen on the big screen or at least a big screen TV if you’re lucky enough to have one. It is the ultimate trip movie and surpasses Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – even Keir Dullea’s cosmic celestial ride – because this is the real thing. Some of the footage is so fantastical you can’t believe it wasn’t created by a Hollywood special effects team. I know there are some people out there who prefer to believe that the moon landings were actually shot on a sound stage in some remote U.S. location – the premise of Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One (1977) – but the reality is even stranger.
Of course, the Apollo program was enormously expensive. Billions of dollars were poured into it despite public criticism in some quarters. Instead of spending money on the space race, why weren’t we trying to improve conditions on our own planet such as putting that money toward the needy, improving the infrastructure or providing a better education for future generations? That may account for why the program ended in 1972, even though NASA’s objective to land a man on the moon was actually a directive from President John F. Kennedy who in a Sept. 12, 1962 speech vowed that the U.S. would land a spacecraft on the moon and that “it will be done before the end of this decade.”
In retrospect the space program may have had more to do with the political agendas of both the U.S. and Russia, who were fierce competitors in the space race, a situation that was neutralized by the end of the Soviet Union’s communist regime. But, whatever the motivations behind the Apollo program, I still find it hard to believe at times that we actually landed men on the moon and they returned. While it may not ever happen again in our lifetime, despite the efforts of Elon Musk and his plan to land people on the moon in 2024, the amazing thing is that it happened at all.
However, the most important question for you is what song by a musician who is still performing would you take to the moon?
The best way to experience Al Reinert’s For All Mankind is to rent or buy the special edition Blu-ray released by The Criterion Collection in July 2009. The extra features include On Camera (a collection of excerpted on-screen interviews with fifteen of the Apollo astronauts), the documentary An Accident Gift: The Making of For All Mankind, audio commentary by Al Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon and other supplementary material.
Other links of interest: