Tag Archives: film

Last Man on the Moon is now released!

“I went to the Moon. What can’t you do?” – Gene Cernan

Our film “The Last Man on the Moon”, from Mark Stewart Productions,  is now officially released. It is showing in selected cinemas in North America, is available on iTunes, and US Blu-rays and DVDs can be pre-ordered. Initial reviews have been excellent.

From left to right: Mark Craig Director; Keith Haviland Co-Executive Producer; Eugene Cernan; Gareth Dodds, Producer and Mark Stewart, Executive Producer.

The film is a feature-length biography of Eugene Cernan, astronaut, aviator, friend and family man. The core team consists of Mark Craig, Director; Gareth Dodds. Producer; Mark Stewart, Executive Producer and – of course – Commander Cernan himself. It has been a great personal pleasure and privilege to have supported this project.

Like all good films. it works at many levels. It looks and sounds beautiful. It is intensely human and at times very funny or intensely moving. The movie appeals to a wide audience, and people with little interest in spaceflight still become engrossed in its gripping story about a man, his family and his friends. The section about the Apollo 1 fire is deeply sad. Sections on Gemini 9 and  Apollo 10 recreate the drama of manned spaceflight. The treatment of Apollo 17 (the last Apollo mission to the Moon) is celebratory, and sometimes approaches the spiritual.

Gene Cernan being interviewed at the Houston premiere of “The Last Man on the Moon”.

At the heart of the story is Captain Cernan’s remarkable personal journey. From humble beginnings, he became a skilled Navy aviator. He was next accepted as an astronaut, and the film allows you to share his raw joy at that moment. During his NASA career, he faced some difficult missions, dealt with genuine tragedy, and makes his own mistakes – including a poorly timed and avoidable helicopter trash. But he retained his passion, his ambition and an absolute focus on the program. He became remarkable leader, and to this day can still light a room and inspire people with his presence.  The film expands to cover his family life, and his deepest friendships, and also manages to be one of the best histories of the golden age of the Apollo era.

The film will appear in other regions soon. To keep up with the film’s progress visit the film’s Facebook Page or its dedicated website.



Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
 He is a former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including being Co-Executive Producer on “The Last Man on the Moon”. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Interstellar Review: A Brave, Imperfect, Beautiful and Exciting Movie

**Warning: mild-spoilers ahead **

What to make of Christopher Nolan’s new Science Fiction epic Interstellar?

This is a film that has been eagerly anticipated, and whose trailers have been filled with strong space imagery, and a sense of mythic grandeur and aspiration. There is, in my view, an intense and general desire for intelligent science fiction beyond the superhero format, and many hoped that Interstellar would provide just that. It has both an A-list director, and an A-list cast of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithglow and Matt Damon. (The idea of Michael Caine running NASA is almost worth the price of an entry ticket in itself.)

However, some of the science reaction has already been negative, and the science indeed creaks at times. At a few moments in the film, there is too much artificial technical explanation, rather like some episodes of Star Trek. As Kubrick showed in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, much admired by Nolan, less is more – especially when events are caused by the gift of advanced alien technology.

There are some moments that are simply inexplicable – such as when the wall of a board style meeting room lifts and reveals a rocket launch pad feet away, and shouts film-set.  It also takes a two-stage rocket launcher to get one of the film’s shuttlecraft into Earth orbit, but the same type of craft is able to lift off by itself from a planet of 1.3g. The distant solar system that they reach through a wormhole is clearly exotic, but unclear – I suspect there was a design for the system that was not explained in the final version of the script. There is a black hole there, a neutron star is mentioned in passing, and the presumably stellar source of light and heat for the planets is not mentioned. The real gravitational and tidal effects of a black hole are understated. The renowned scientist and science writer Phil Plait wrote a very good review (see here) that reveals this class of defect in fine detail, although as we shall see I reach very different conclusions about the movie.

And the plot and characterization sometimes creak as well.  The film tries to be grand and laden with meaning at many levels – which negative reviewers find pompous. There is a section with Matt Damon as a rogue and cowardly astronaut that for me doesn’t sufficiently suspend disbelief at the human level, even before we think about the science, to really work. Would a man alone for a decade turn on his rescuers so quickly? This is ultimately an issue with this part of the script, rather than the actors who generally do well.

But, although the film is flawed enough that I came close to losing my hope and belief at one point, at the closing credits I felt that I had seen an imaginative, rich and ultimately terrific movie – especially since the last third is a strong spectacle, and a good piece of story telling. The film moves through new ideas at a blistering pace, and ideas that range across a very broad spectrum of cinematic technical excellence, visual appeal, science and story telling. It finishes dramatically, grandly and – it must be said – sentimentally. It bravely plays with concepts related to black holes, relativity and gravity – event horizons, time dilation, singularities, and accretion disks are not common features in big movies. Although it does this in a ramshackle manner, Chris Nolan and team deserve a loud round of applause for trying such ideas in a large-scale film project.

Visually the film is superb and creates a vocabulary for representing space and space flight that both convinces and pays homage to past glories of spaceflight and Science Fiction film. There are scenes that are based on the Apollo era Saturn V launch footage, and the staging footage recovered from film canisters held inside those great rockets of the Moon Age. There are flight sequences reminiscent of real film of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. There is an excellent, somewhat theatrical representation of time travel that echoes the weightless scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where HAL is turned off. 2001 is also directly quoted in scenes where an interior and noisy point of view shifts to a silent exterior view of the film’s space hardware, echoing the quite grace and balletic pace of Kubrick’s masterpiece. And it is visually quoted again in the journey through the wormhole – very like the last “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001 – and the recreation of a black hole that is lit by the brilliance of its accretion disk.

Before that, however, the film starts on Terra Firma with the conjuring of a troubled future world, and a troubled America, through the recreation of an idealized Eisenhower era – like the worlds glimpsed in Astronaut Farmer or Field of Dreams. This is a place of strange dust storms and dying plants. It is also a place of infinite cornfields, a wooden family farmhouse and baseball.

It is where we learn about the character of the hero Cooper (played well by Matthew McConaughey) – a feisty, tough, independent ex-astronaut now turned corn-farmer who “was born 40 years too late, or 40 years too early” in a community that sees itself as “the caretaker generation.” This part of the film establishes his relationship with his daughter Murphy, a relationship that will span more than a century of Earth time and links the various elements of the film. This primary arc reminded me – since it is in the end redemptive, strongly sentimental, and plays with love, time and outcomes – of a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a film I adore, so I have to admit I enjoyed the main Interstellar arc, and its inevitable uplifting ending, immensely.

The centre of the film consists of a tour of wonderfully imagined – and often scientifically dubious – strange worlds that is similar to the kind of planetary treks found in 1950s pulp science fiction. I was reminded of early works by Robert Heinlein, and James Blish. There is even a robot with a human-like personality, and a strong, tunable sense of irony. The special effects create a strong feeling of reality, and these alien worlds are very believable, even when you find yourself questioning the science.

Interstellar ends with a long and genuinely gripping sequence that is fast paced and intensely dramatic as astronaut Cooper first docks with a damaged and rapidly spinning spacecraft, and stabilizes it – a sequence possibly influenced by Neil Armstrong’s success in stopping a rotating capsule on Gemini 8. Cooper’s craft then falls into a black hole, and Cooper is placed in a kind of time tunnel by unseen and distant descendents of humanity, which becomes the device that facilitates the dénouement of the movie. Strangely enough, although this is one of the most fantastical parts of the film, it works well. The ability to influence the past is presented as a that momentary gift, a mystery created by superior intelligences, rather the alien monoliths in 2001.

In summary, Interstellar is a brave, not always successful, attempt to create a thrilling science fiction epic with greater intelligence than most. It is a beautiful movie. It brims full with images culled from fifty years of actual space flight and other Science Fiction movies that are integrated into a convincing and inspiring vision. It also bubbles over with ideas and concepts that sometimes work well, and sometimes stumble. It is an inspiring, exciting, beautiful and imperfect film that I would strongly recommend seeing, with something of an open heart.

Interstellar also represents something of the current zeitgeist – where science and technology are more valued, and some people are rediscovering the wonder of space flight. There is unsatisfied demand for intelligent science fiction, and films that genuinely take us to new places in the grandest sense. Hopefully, Interstellar will encourage others to raise their eyes to the skies above.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Steam, War Computers and Social Media: Representing Technology in Film

The London Film Festival is currently on – running from 8th to 17th October across 17 venues, showing over 250 films. As always, it offers an extraordinarily rich program from filmmakers across the world, in a city that has now firmly become one of the movie capitals of the world.

Film, of course, is now a truly digital business. In the last few years, digital cinema cameras like the Arri Alexa have made physical rolls of films essentially redundant, and give very high-definition results of great quality. Production activities like data wrangling and conforming are tasks centred on managing video data that will seem very familiar to anyone who has dealt with configuration management on a software project. And when films are shown in a modern cinema, they will be stored as a Digital Cinema Package or DCP – a standardised collection of digital files. Everywhere there is also experimentation with digital distribution, the art of getting content to consumers in different ways on different devices, and the web’s video services have unleashed a vast wave of low-cost creativity. Technology is transforming filmmaking.

The London Film Festival itself exploits modern technology, including live streaming of its red carpet galas to cinemas across the country and use of its own BFI player for festival related content. London overall is a place where technical skills abound in the new digital crafts around post-production, special effects and 3D.

But this article is not about the digital revolution in the making of film; it is about how technology is increasingly part of the dramatic content of film, and how technology and especially digital technology is represented. The examples are – naturally enough – drawn from the London Film Festival.

The inspiration for the article was accidental. I had booked each film I wanted to see for the normal reasons – I liked the look of the film, or respected the filmmakers, or was interested in the buzz surrounding the movie. But, as I watched each of them – usually somewhere in Leicester Square – I was struck by how often technology intruded, and how often directors tried to find ways of representing technology in general, and specifically n the digital world, on screen.

Mr. Turner

Let’s start in an unlikely place with Mr. Turner. It is a marvellous film, from director Mike Leigh. It is a biography of perhaps the greatest English painter JMW Turner (1775 to 1851) who was known as “the painter of light” and who anticipated both Impressionism and modern Abstract Art.

Set in the first half of the 19th Century, it succeeds at recreating the period with a sense of truth that is unusually powerful – through its authentic and sometimes very funny dialogue, its recreation of the manners and moral temper of the period, and its careful choice of locations.

It shows off Turner’s art of course – and is visually rich and sometimes stunning – but the film also brings to life the man himself: a successful, eccentric and harrumphing curmudgeon born outside the establishment, who then became very much part of it. Turner is vividly played by Timothy Spall, with ungainly confidence and much humour.

But one of the most unexpected parts of the film for me was the way it shows an older Turner experiencing changes in 19th century society, and especially the impact of technology. Mike Leigh successfully conveys a deep sense of the move from the Georgian to the truly industrial Victorian era.

Examples: the means of passage from London to Margate changes from steamer to train during the film. There is a wonderful, funny sequence where Turner and his mistress are photographed by an American master of this new technology. He is armed with the latest cameras and equipment, including a head brace to help with long exposures. During this process, Turner ponders on the future effects on art.

And in one of the grandest sequences of the film, Turner and a group of friends watch the tall-masted and exhausted warship The Fighting Temeraire being towed to its break-up by a steam tug. This was to inspire what is one of the most famous, reproduced and loved paintings by a British artist.

During the scene, one of Turner’s companions looks at the great tall ship and remarks melancholically: “The ghost of the past.”

Turner prefers instead to observe the blackened, low shape of the steam tug: “No,” he shouts back, “The past is the past. You’re observing the future! Smoke. Iron. Steam!”

This presentation of technology, as a set of dynamic changes and images seen through the curious eyes of an artist is highly effective. The film ends up being as much a biography of the early Victorian age – a age of steam, coal, industry and transformation, with the young Albert and Victoria putting in an appearance themselves – as it is a biography of Turner.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game moves us directly into the first days of the digital era. Indeed a key moment of the film, set during World War II, is when Keira Knightly pronounces the phrase “digital computer” awkwardly, as though it is being said in the world for the very first time.

The film is a biographic study of Alan Turing, played with suitable coldness and fragility by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a taut, difficult personality often backwards diagnosed as autistic. He was a mathematician, cryptologist, and one of the first computer scientists, introducing many key foundations of that discipline. The name of the film itself is taken from one of Turing’s papers where he develops the concept of the Turing Test. This is a test for whether machines can ever think, and whether they could ever imitate a human mind.

It is a brilliant choice of title, since the film is about deceit at many levels – including the original Enigma codes, the hiding of the success of Allied code-breaking and the passing of false information to the Russians. Above all, there is the hidden nature of Turing’s own sexuality in a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offence.

The bulk of the film’s plot – with quite a lot of dramatic simplification- is centred on the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. The resulting intelligence was labelled Ultra (from Ultra Secret), and Churchill would later tell King George VI: “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.” The film itself repeats the common suggestion that ultra shaved two full years of the war.

In the film, the core of this process is a computer-like device – a bombe in the terminology of the time – that eventually is successfully programmed to break German encrypted messages on a daily basis. Turing’s efforts to design, build and operate the machine, and manage the team around it, occupies much of the story.

The visual and dramatic vocabulary that the film uses to describe its technology is taken straight from 1950s Science Fiction. In some ways, this is a perfect choice, since the 1940s wartime acceleration of technology would influence the world-view of the 1950s. So, we have common archetypes such as:

  • The central character of a lonely, arrogant boffin, dressed in tweed, who has a mission to save the world. Indeed, Turing is warned several times in the film to avoid thinking of himself as God.
  • Plain speaking, slight dim military men who’s job seems to be to place obstacles in the way of the hero
  • Sudden moments of inspiration where a chance remark opens the door to the instant resolution of a complex problem.
  • Diagrams and mathematical text assembled in great linked masses showing the workings of another “Beautiful Mind”
  • The great machine itself, a clunking mass of cylinders and valves that rotate remorselessly – like a vision of a Babbage difference engine. It reminded me of the whirl of mechanical computation machines in the classic “When Worlds Collide”.

The vision of technology here is cold, hard-edged and relentless – similar to Turing himself. Overall, the film succeeds – it is a good,moving and watchable piece of work, with strong performances throughout, but perhaps the plot works itself a little too mechanically, simulating the code-breaking machine at its heart.

Men, Women and Children

This film – by Jason Reitman and starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner and a large ensemble cast – is completely contemporary. It is about the lives of middle-class Americans, and how modern motivations and complexities are wired together by personal and social technology. It is based on an original novel by the controversial author Chad Kultgen.

Technology is represented in two ways. Firstly, there is a sequence of digital special effect sequences of the Voyager missions to the outer solar system, narrated by Emma Thompson. The connecting link between these sequences and the rest of the film is through the use of words – at the very end of the film – that Carl Sagan wrote about the “Pale Blue Dot” photo. This famous image was taken by one of the Voyager probes of the distant Earth as a final act of observation. The sequences are beautiful, and the narration sometimes very funny, but this part of the film feels a little contrived and unnecessary.

 The second representation of technology – of websites and social media – is much more relevant and direct. This is not achieved through conventional shots of a PC or smartphone screen, but via pop-up windows on screen that represent what is being shown on a device. These appear beside the main antagonists in the film, popping in and out of existence like speech or thought bubbles. This is effective, and helps the narrative flow. It soon seems strangely natural. It is also provides opportunities for real humour, when people text what they really thinking of the person they are talking to.  

The themes covered are those social issues generated or amplified by technology. One example plotline: the character Tim Mooney (played by Ansel Elgort) is a schoolboy football player of real talent. But he quits the sport – to the vast disapproval of his father Kent (Dean Norris) – to obsessively play online games. He also learns of his absent mother’s new marriage via Facebook. Increasingly alienated, he finds solace in a relationship with intellectual, book-reading teenager Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever).

Her mother Patrica (played with steel by Jennifer Garner) is one of the strongest characters in the film. Her obsession is the Internet life of her daughter, which she monitors, restricts and controls with total authority before she finds out that her daughter has a secret and rebellious alternative web identity. This sets up a near tragic incident, where Patrica impersonates her daughter to persuade Tom that their relationship is over. As a consequence, Tom takes an overdose that he barely survives.

Another examples of the film’s threads include a teenager so corrupted by pornography he cannot form a normal relationship, a married couple who organise parallel infidelities via websites, a teenager who damages her life chances by putting too racy images on the web, and another – borderline anorexic – who gets advice on extreme dieting from virtual friends on the web.

There is much humour, especially at the beginning, but in the end the film takes a grim view of humanity. However, the representation of the technology works well, and allows parallel threads of plot and meaning to be shown on screen. It is a successful recreation of people’s abstract virtual lives.

Dearest and Rosewater

Both these films are reconstructions of real stories, where technology is part of the story, but not the prime driver. Both were – for me – unexpectedly moving, and illuminated very different cultures.

“Dearest” is a Chinese film, directed by Peter Chan, which covers the sensitive subject of child abduction in China. Although fictionalizsed, it is based on a true story that Chan came across in a TV documentary. It is well acted, humane and gives real insight into the social world of modern China.

Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) lose their child PengPeng through abduction. They spend three years searching – using the web as a means of communicating across the vastness of China, and connecting with others in their situation. Eventually, they locate their son in a remote village. The film then – remarkably and successfully – switches its point of view entirely to the heartbroken woman Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) who has been looking after the abducted child.

In Dearest, the technology dimension is treated entirely conventionally, with the focus always on the actors. It is well made, and a delightful film, but rooted in traditional filmmaking.

“Rosewater” is the story of London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) who was detained in Iran for 100 days, while his British and pregnant girlfriend waited for him in London. It was written and directed by Jon Stewart, who was connected with the case.

The film starts with Bahari getting increasingly involved in the events around the Iranian presidential elections, and their violent aftermath. He is arrested and spends four months in solitary at Evin Prison, being interrogated by a “specialist”. Since he is blind-folded, his experience of the interrogator is through the scent of rosewater that surrounds him.

Technology threads itself through the film in two ways. It is shown as one of the motors of change in Iran, with the opposition fluent in use of the web and internet. TV news has also connected Iranian youth to the wider world. At one point, Bahari is introduced to a “university” that is simply a vast array of satellite dishes, hidden from the security forces. The last scene in the film is of a small boy filming the destruction of the nest of dishes by police. He is using a smart phone.

There is also a sequence that starts with Bahari in the depths of despair. He is convinced that the world has forgotten entirely about him. He has been told that his girl-friend has not contacted the Iranian authorities. But then a security guard mentions that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. In that instance, he realises he absolutely has not been forgotten, and he is actually famous and the subject of much outside debate. That awakening is captured in the use of an animation sequence that shows information and keywords spreading around the world. It is out of kilter with the naturalistic feel of the rest of the film, and reminded me of the use of maps to show travel and the passing of time in films from the 40s and 50s. But it is effective, and a compact means of making the point.


Technology, and a sense of technical change and opportunity is everywhere in society, and everywhere in the world. That is influencing the mirror of film – only one of the films above was directly about the use of technology, but technology pervades all of them. This presents filmmakers with a challenge – especially when the technology is digital. How we represent the drama and rhythm of lives that are part virtual becomes an interesting and essential question. Soon I suspect someone will make a breakthrough film which tackles and answers that question head-on.

I look forward to it


The Last Man on the Moon, True Leadership and Bold Programs

“I went to the Moon. What can’t you do?” – Gene Cernan

I have had the privilege of being part of the production team for the forthcoming and extraordinary film Last Man on the Moon, which is about the remarkable life of Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan. The Executive Producer is Mark Stewart, the Director is Mark Craig, and the Producer is Gareth Dodds. You can find the film’s impressive trailer here.

The film has been previewed at SpaceFest in Pasadena, and at Sheffield Docfest. It received standing ovations, and good initial reviews from the Hollywood Reporter (see here) and the Guardian (see here). It combines modern footage, well-judged and well-executed special effect sequences, and excellent archive (including much footage that is rarely seen, and personal archive film of Cernan’s early years).

Like all great films. it works at many levels.

It looks beautiful. It is intensely human and at times funny or moving. It appeals to a wide audience, and people with little interest in spaceflight still become engrossed in its gripping story about a man, his family and his friends. The section about the Apollo 1 fire is deeply sad. The treatment of Apollo 17 is celebratory, and sometimes approaches the spiritual.

For me, as a student of how men and women become leaders and how teams of people, and teams of teams, can work together to achieve extraordinary things, the film has two inspirational stories to tell.

A Personal Journey of Real Achievement

The first is Captain Cernan’s remarkable personal journey. From humble beginnings, he became a skilled Navy aviator. He was next accepted as an astronaut, and the film allows you to share his raw joy at that moment. During his NASA career, he faced some difficult missions, dealt with genuine tragedy, and makes his own mistakes – including a poorly timed and avoidable helicopter trash. But he retained his passion, his ambition and an absolute focus on the program. He put in his 10,000 hours of learning, working and more. As a result, he was selected to be the commander of an Apollo mission to the moon – an achievement he shares with only eight other humans. He had become a remarkable leader, and to this day can still light a room and inspire people with his presence.

Insights into an Extraordinary Program

The second story is that – although the film is first and foremost a brilliant insight into a life- it is also simply the best summary I have seen of the golden age of the US space program as a program.

There is a scene early in the film where Captain Cernan watches a recording of Jack Kennedy’s famous speech that launched the moon program, delivered at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962.

Jack Kennedy making his Moon speech
Jack Kennedy making his Moon speech

The speech is redolent with history. It sets a simple, but gigantic purpose and even defines a schedule. It is a perfect example of initiating a program with scalpel-like precision.

“”We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon… (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”.

The film then cuts to Gene Kranz, who reminds us that at this point the US had just minutes of manned spaceflight experience. A goal of enormous scale had been set.

A Difficult Beginning

The birth of the US space program was not easy. The film only touches on this with brief archive clips, but like any new complex program, and any new technology there were multiple failures.

One was the “four inch flight” where a thankfully unmanned Mercury-Redstone rose four inches before the engine shut down, and the rocket returned to its pad. The small escape rocket lifted off by itself, and the parachutes spilled out over the still-fueled main rocket, threatening to drag it over.

The first six flights of the Lunar Ranger program – America’s first unmanned missions to the moon – failed. There were more launch failures. The target (i.e. the moon) was missed, and cameras failed.

But all good programs are built to deal with issues, and to learn. The Mercury program did put the first US astronauts into orbit, safely. And the last three Lunar Ranger missions were completely successful, returning the first close-up images of the Lunar surface.

Gemini 9

Gemini 9 Crew - Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan
Gemini 9 Crew – Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan

Cernan’s first mission was Gemini 9. It wasn’t meant to be. He and Tom Stafford (the commander) were the back-up crew, but the main crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were killed in a plane crash in bad weather – captured in a melancholic use of archive and voice over in the film.

Gemini was a sequence of two-man craft, designed to test in Earth orbit basic techniques of spacecraft rendezvous, docking and space walking. From a program viewpoint, it was an essential period of developing, prototyping and testing elements needed for later missions. It was a stepping-stone to Apollo and the moon.

Gemini 9 proved to be hard.

Angry Alligator

One part of the mission was to simulate docking with an unmanned Augmented Target Docking Adapter or ATDA. When Cernan and Stafford arrived they found the other craft slowly rotating, with the two sections of the cone-shaped nose shroud still attached. Stafford famously said at this point: “It looks like an angry alligator out here rotating around”.

Cernan and Stafford saw that, although the shroud’s explosive bolts had fired, two lanyards were still keeping the shroud pieces together. It would turn out that boundaries between teams, and process problems, had led to an incorrect launch configuration.

Gemini 9's Angry Alligator -NASA Image
Gemini 9’s Angry Alligator -NASA Image

A Dangerous Spacewalk

Another part of the mission, and this is a major and dramatic segment of the film, involved a spacewalk, or EVA in NASA jargon.

The truth was that at this point in the space program, nobody understood space walks properly.

 The objective of the EVA was for Cernan to use a prototype Astronaut Maneuvering Unit or AMU, a science-fiction-like rocket pack. The first problem was that, after pumping up his suit it “became so stiff that it didn’t want to bend at all.” Then as he left the hatch, he began tumbling wildly, twisted around by his umbilical.

He eventually got to the rear of the spacecraft, where the AMU has been stowed.

His suit had “all the flexibility of a rusty suit of armor” and the work around the AMU proved to be much harder than expected. A lack of hand and footholds meant he could not get easy leverage to help him turn valves and enable other movements. His pulse reached 180 beats per minute. Eventually the EVA was abandoned, and the AMU left where it was.

Gene Cernan during the problematic Gemini 9 space walk
Gene Cernan during the problematic Gemini 9 space walk

NASA would learn a lot from this failed spacewalk, showing the power of a focus on improvement that is an necessary part of any large program. They would add hand and footholds for easy leverage – which Buzz Aldrin would demonstrate successfully on a later Gemini mission. They would redesign their space suits to avoid overheating, and they would balance workloads more effectively for future Gemini and Apollo EVAs.

Apollo 10

Cernan’s next mission was Apollo 10, again working with Tom Stafford as commander.

This was a full dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, the moon landing. Such rehearsals are essential parts of any large program but especially important in something as dangerous as a spaceflight.

The Apollo 10 lunar module would get within 8 miles of the lunar surface. The mission would provide data to calibrate the powered descent guidance system for future missions, test the mission control procedures and communications systems needed for landing, and provide many other insights.

The film elegantly captures the beauty of the flight, and its arrival above the alien landscape of the film.

But, as with many other types of dress rehearsals, there was a moment of real crisis. As the Lunar dropped its first, descent stage, it began to roll and twist very violently. This had been caused by a small error in setting the controls. As Cernan remembers in the film, he observed the horizon spinning through the window many times. It was a moment of high danger, eventually resolved.

But overall, Apollo 10 was a tremendous success. It would pave the way for Apollo 11, and Neil Armstrong’s great leap for mankind.

Apollo 17

Apollo 17 was Cernan’s last mission and for him an immense personal achievement. He had proved himself capable of leadership, and he was selected to be the Apollo 17commander. As a side effect of that, he would become the Last Man on the Moon, for at least a while.

Gene Cernan standing on the Moon
Gene Cernan standing on the Moon

Apollo 17 would be one of the great Apollo missions, the culmination of a decade of work from a team numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It has a strong science element, and carried the only Apollo scientist-astronaut, geologist Harrison Schmidtt. They would spend three days exploring a large area with their Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV.

In many important ways, the mission was built around the learning from Cernan’s previous flights – in the design of the spacesuits for the lunar surface, and the structuring of the EVAs, and in the data collected from the Apollo 10 rehearsal.

Apollo 17 was just not a single mission, involving a brave crew of three – it was part of a sequence, of a well-organized and well-managed series of missions that formed part of the boldest program ever undertaken, by a team of extraordinary scale. It shows what we are capable of.

Achievement, Aspiration and Opportunity

And the film ends with a voice-over from Commander Cernan that captures that sense of achievement, aspiration and opportunity.

“I went to the Moon. What can’t you do?”

The trailer of the film Last Man on the Moon is available here.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
 He is a former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.