Apollo 11: lift-off for the spirit

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It’s not every day you see a film that provokes awe, deep thoughts and expansive emotions – but ‘Apollo 11’ is certainly one. Immense power, mind-boggling speeds and stunning views of heavenly bodies: this documentary released to accompany the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, portrays and amplifies dimensions of science, technology and the universe that we rarely see and absorb. Could it also possibly point some people to God?

From the opening images of the Saturn 5 being inched into position by an enormous ‘caterpillar’ device (men in hard hats walking like ants beside it), to the furnace roar of launch, the electrifying sight of a fire-spewing rocket shooting heavenwards, all the way to re-entry… this is a film that seizes you by the lapels and strikes you hard in the psychological solar plexus. Especially in IMAX.

Nearly half a million minds were focussed in the course of a decade to planning, calculating, designing and perfecting how to get three men to the moon and back (and two of them onto its surface) – alive. An astonishing collective technical and scientific achievement. In light of the feat this film pulls off in wowing us afresh with its wonder, it was ironic to learn in the BBC4 series ‘Chasing the Moon’ how quickly people became blasé about the Apollo moon programme, which ended just three years later. The thrill of the new soon wore off. But it is the power of art (and IMAX cinema technology!) to imbue the familiar with fresh wonder – which this film does in spades.

The question I’m intrigued by is, what if any role can the awe triggered by such a film play, in inspiring viewers to ponder broader, deeper questions about life, meaning and spirituality?

Power, speed, beauty and new perspectives – especially on a cosmic scale – shake up our usual perceptions, and may even encourage us to jettison jaded ideas, and ponder fresh possibilities and truths. They present, in short, an opportunity for revelation. Take for instance the electrifying images of burning fuel, and the enormous thrust that propelled the Saturn 5 into space. Or the thrilling corner-of-the-screen digital display that revealed the rocketing orbital velocity, touching nearly twenty-five thousand miles per hour (seven miles per second), as it ‘burned for the moon’ and escaped earth’s embrace (it reminded me of a petrol counter when you fill up your motor – which I’ll never look at the same way again).

All achieved through human mastery of resources. But reflect a little deeper. Fossil fuels, and the vacuum of space beyond our wafer-thin atmosphere, that enable such feats and our wonder at them – we didn’t create these. You might say they are ‘gifted’ to us. We radically depend on such laws, forces and features of nature. Feeling – as film enables – the power released by nature when channeled by human ingenuity in this way, sends our spirits soaring. The film also highlights, amplifies and brings into focus aspects of beauty in space, such as the ‘magnificent desolation’ of the moon, and the blue and white brushed ‘marble’ of the ‘earthrise’ image. Such beauties have a latent capacity to act as signs pointing to eternal power. Does that fragile ‘oasis’ impression of the earth not also speak of a sustaining tenderness and care?

Natural wonders communicate an eloquence of their own. The ‘wow’ factor they induce can momentarily disarm, offering the heart a chance to perhaps contemplate a fresh journey of its own. Nature can only take you so far. If the mystery at the heart of all things is to be known more fully to us finite creatures, we need revelation, and an encounter. But the sceptical viewer of ‘Apollo 11’ has a chance to allow awe to burn away the earth-bound mist of prejudice and preconception. It can send the fragile spacecraft of your spirit beyond its habitual orbit to ponder fresh vistas. Those who seek to communicate about God and spiritual things are also challenged to fire up our imaginations, blast off from the constricting atmosphere of trite religious language – and embark on the voyage of finding fresh ways to communicate the power of nature’s signs as pointers to a Creator. Then, reflecting the poetry of the astronaut’s reading of Genesis chapter 1 at earthrise on the earlier Apollo 8 mission, lowered defences may for some permit a revelation from beyond.

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