One evening in May 2017, Stephen Slater got an unusual email from the US National Archives. NASA had left a trove of untouched Apollo 11-specific film reels sitting in cold storage, the message read. And he could access them.
Slater, an archival producer and self-confessed space nerd, was "stunned."
He was at his home in Sheffield, England, waiting for his usual Skype call with director Todd Douglas Miller. The two had been compiling every piece of film footage from the first moon landing they could find, piecing it together for Miller's documentary, Apollo 11, which is out now. The plan: create the moon documentary to end all moon documentaries. But the duo were racing against a deadline. They needed to complete the film in time for the moon landing's 50th anniversary this July.
That's when the email came in.
"[The US National Archives] didn't know much about the content, had no indication whether it was in good condition," Slater says. Finding records of the moon landing is a mission itself: NASA taped over its own records of the landings to save costs, instead of having to buy more expensive tapes for future programs. Miller and Slater scavenged materials from everywhere: Old NASA engineers sent them cassette tapes from launch day, records kept in places like the Parkes Observatory in Australia.
This was the motherlode of lost moon footage: 165 reels of 70-millimeter film sitting in cold storage, a third of it specifically relating to Apollo 11. Other archival footage of the moon landing was predominantly shot on 16 mm and 35 mm film, resulting in a low-quality, grainy image. In contrast, the wide, high-resolution images in Slater's Apollo 11 make Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin look like movie stars. Shots of the launch, the controllers inside Mission Control, the recovery of the space capsule -- they were in pristine condition. And they'd never been seen before.
Using the unearthed footage, Slater focused on video primarily shot in Mission Control during NASA's first moon landing attempt. He likened the footage to a "proto-IMAX format." But there was a problem.
In 1969, the cameramen at the Mission Control Center in Houston hadn't yet been introduced to the joy of Marie Kondo. At the end of every day during the mission -- nine in total -- they would splice together the footage and throw it into cans in no particular order. The cameras inside Mission Control didn't record sound. "I had to pull all these reels apart and work out when a reel started and finished," Slater says. "Once I'd done that, it was literally going through, lip-syncing, trying to add sound to the footage."
Matching one clip with audio could take days. Slater worked from a repository of 11,000 hours of Mission Control audio, ears filled with the voices of controllers talking to the astronauts. One clip stands out: a flight surgeon threatening to quarantine the entire USS Hornet, the ship tasked with recovering Apollo 11's command module after it had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
Slater's process involved watching out for the moment a guidance officer looked like he was speaking, then hunting for his audio and syncing it up. "It is the most tedious work you can imagine. Basically, you're reading lips," Miller told the Sydney Morning Herald in early July. "Stephen would spend hours and hours just to get one little word. But having that just brought these Mission Control flight controllers to life."
Over 100 of Slater's clips were used in the Apollo 11 documentary. The final product showcases the painstaking work of Slater and director Miller. Unearthing the high-definition film casts the Apollo 11 mission in a completely new light, looking like it's something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"There is a nine-day version of this film," Miller told Build Series in March. "That's how we started. We just needed to know exactly where everything was. Audio, video, still imagery, everything put out on a timeline so we could take a look at it to whittle it down."
Plenty of documentaries tell the story of our mission to touch the moon. At least 12 focus on the Apollo program, and at least four tackle Apollo 11 conspiracy theories, including one simply titled, Did We Go? One of the newest moon documentaries, Apollo: Missions to the Moon, is another project that coincides with the 50th anniversary. Its filmmakers mined hours of rare audio tapes never made widely accessible, including astronauts communicating with Mission Control on Apollo 8, 11 and 13.
"It's the understatement of the century to say it's a very, very well-worn topic," Slater says.
Shots of the Apollo mission have become generic: You see Mission Control, cut to the console, a controller, an ashtray, a man smoking a cigarette. "You didn't really get the idea of when it was shot, you don't even have a sense of place in time," he explains. And Slater would certainly know.
Including "thinking" time, he spent a year of his life reading the lips of controllers in Mission Control. He's done now. Steeped in accomplishment. Apollo 11 opened to rave reviews. But, he says, "It's something that's with me all the time."
The moon landing archive is now "comprehensive."
That's in large part thanks to Slater's partner on his massive Apollo 11 archival project, NASA software engineer Ben Feist. Over two years, Feist built a website that places every photo, video and recording from the mission into an accessible timeline. You can go to https://apolloinrealtime.org/11/, chuck on your headphones and dive into an incredibly intimate experience of a rocket blasting to the moon as it happened 50 years ago.
And it came down to starting from a "completely accurate base," Slater says. "That's what a lot of people haven't done. They'll just grab any archive that looks kind of right."
For Slater, the lines between hobby and job have blurred. "Knowing where boundaries are between work and home life. That's a very important balance."
There's also the matter of figuring out what his title of "archival producer" actually means. "I don't think it's a well-defined job," he says. "It's not like you can go on a course to learn how to do this stuff. Typically, a lot of it is making stuff up as you go along and doing what feels right. What the gut instinct feels like. I rely a lot on that."
Understandably, Slater is going to take a break from the moon: "I'm keen to move on to other challenges. I don't really feel like it's possible to do the same kind of film again." Still, he says, "I'll probably be talking to you in a few years at the 60th anniversary."
The moon landing is a triumph of human achievement and engineering. But in its wake it left a vast collection of records that became a puzzle to put together. "It's great," Slater reflects, because when the puzzle is solved, it's solved forever.
"You've added something to history."
Apollo 11 is available to download from iTunes and has a limited release in UK and Australian cinemas.