Originally released in 1978 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Moon landings (and as the director has admitted, to help keep the US congress hungry to fund NASA) and constructed from mountains of unused NASA and other archival footage covering the American space and Moon missions of the 1960s, Tony Palmer’s The Space Race (recently screened from a restored print at the Barbican) differs from more serious minded nuts-and-bolts space documentaries in that it showcases a somewhat irreverent, offbeat approach. This is expressed through the mix of footage that illuminates not just the awesome achievement of sending people into space, but the absurdity and humour inherent in the endeavour. It also features a score from Mike Oldfield that is sweeping and off-centre in equal parts.
What actually opens the documentary is not footage of the Saturn V rockets lifting off majestically on their mission to take Neil Armstrong to his famous rendezvous with history on the lunar surface (though the slow-motion footage of the Apollo 11 launch remains breathtaking to see), but instead a montage of various failed American rocket tests, virtually all of which end in a spectacular fireball, with some of the rockets doing a complete 180 after lift off. Intercut with these epic fails are archive sequences showing jaw-droppingly ineffective flying machines from the pre-Wright Brothers era. It is an unusual and funny way to start off what you expect to be a portentous documentary, but it also makes a fair point: heading up into the air, let alone space, was and is very dangerous. The Apollo missions were not sure things, involving as they did three astronauts sitting atop what was essentially a giant, hydrogen-filled bomb.
The melange of archive footage takes viewers from the beginnings of the US’s tentative probes into orbit with John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth in February 1962, right up to Apollo 17 in December 1972. The internal camera footage of the Eagle lander cockpit as it races towards the Moon’s surface, as a strangely calm Armstrong counts down the distance, still has the power to thrill. But even an Astronaut needs to goof off once in a while, as Palmer throws in some sequences where the suited-up and moonwalking Apollo crew bounce around on the lunar surface humming little ditties to themselves. Overall, this newly restored and complete edition of this space documentary works as a nicely different companion piece to the more stately For All Mankind.
The Space Movie: US, 1980, Dir Tony Palmer, 78 min