M*A*S*H And The Moon Landings

Still from M*A*S*HI’ve got into the habit of checking what the Internet Movie Database has to say about films after I’ve watched them. After rewatching Robert Altman’s 1970 classic M*A*S*H, I happened on something odd in the film’s “Trivia” section at IMDb:

The loudspeaker shots and announcements were added after editing had begun, and the filmmakers realized that they needed more transitions. Some of the loudspeaker shots have the Moon visible and were shot while the Apollo 11 astronauts were on the Moon.

Well, that’s not right. Like me, many people of a certain age have a pretty vivid recollection of what the moon looked like during the Apollo 11 landing, and it didn’t look as it appears in the film’s nocturnal loudspeaker shot, at the head of this post. Here’s a close-up:

Moon phase from M*A*S*HThat’s a gibbous waxing moon, a day or two past its First Quarter.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module touched down at 20:17:39 GMT on 20 July 1969. It took off less than a day later, at 17:54 on 21 July. Here’s what the moon looked like at landing and take-off (I’ve marked the Apollo 11 landing site, for reasons I’ll come back to):

Moon phase during Apollo 11 landing
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia
Moon phase during Apollo 11 LM takeoff
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

The moon was a fattish crescent throughout the first moon landing. If the image of the moon at the head of the post was taken during July 1969, it was probably on the night of the 24-25 July, by which time the astronauts were safely back on Earth.

So where does the story come from? I think it’s from Enlisted: The Story Of M*A*S*H (2002). In that documentary Robert Altman describes how, during the editing process, he realized that he needed more transitional shots to insert into what was essentially a very episodic story. He came up with the idea of the now-iconic public address announcements by the hapless Sergeant-Major Vollmer. The film’s editor Danford Greene then goes on to explain:

I thought that we needed more speakers—more inserts of speakers. So Bob [Altman] said, “Fine, go shoot them.” But one wonderful thing that I don’t think anyone knows about is that our astronauts were on the moon. They had just hit the moon, like the day before, and I’ve got a couple of those in the shots of the speakers with our astronauts on the moon in the background.

So Greene doesn’t actually specify Apollo 11. But given the film’s release date in 1970, he can only be referring to Apollo 11 or 12, since the remaining moon landings occurred in 1971-2.

And the Apollo 12 landing is a much better match for the lunar phase in the film:

Moon phase during Apollo 12 landing
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

So at first I thought I’d solved the puzzle. But Apollo 12 landed on the moon on 19 November 1969, and the movie was first released in the USA on 25 January 1970. That seems like a pretty tight schedule. Another M*A*S*H documentary confirmed my suspicion—the AMC TV series Backstory discussed the making of M*A*S*H in an episode broadcast in 2000, and stated that filming ended in June 1969, and the edited movie was shown to a (rapturous) test audience in September. That puts Apollo 11 precisely in the frame, and excludes Apollo 12. So either there were other loudspeaker shots, taken during the night of 20-21 July, which didn’t make it into the final version of the movie, or Danford Greene just misremembered the exact date—he had other things on his mind at the time, I’m sure.

But notice how both Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landed close to the edge of the illuminated part of the moon, in a region where the sun had only recently risen. That’s no coincidence—here’s Apollo 14:

Moon phase during Apollo 14 landing
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

Maybe you’ll take my word for it that the other three landings took place under similar circumstances.

The Apollo spacecraft orbited the moon in a clockwise direction when viewed from the north, so crossed the moon’s face from right to left in the views I’ve presented, which have north at the top. So the Lunar Module descended towards the landing site in the same direction, from daylight towards darkness. The timing of the landing was chosen specifically to be a couple of days after sunrise at the landing site, so the astronauts in the LM descended with the sun at their backs, avoiding glare, while long shadows accentuated the shape of the terrain ahead, making it easier to pick out a level landing area.

What was useful on the descent had the potential to be a hazard on the ground, because the Lunar Module landed facing down-sun, into its own long shadow—and so the astronauts descended to the lunar surface in the shadow of the LM. With a black sky above shedding no scattered light into the shadow zone, that seems like it should have been a recipe for a fall and a broken ankle (at best).

But they benefited from a rather remarkable optical effect produced by lunar dust—and I’ll write about that in another post soon.

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