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'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' film trailer transforms Apollo history

Tranquility Base transformed: Teaser for Transformers: Dark of the Moon reveals an alternate Apollo 11. (Paramount Pictures)
December 13, 2010

— In the teaser trailer released last week for Transformers: Dark of the Moon director Michael Bay rewrites the history of the first moon landing. Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are sent on a mission that takes "a giant leap" beyond collecting rocks and planting the American flag.

According to the preview for Bay's third film about "robots in disguise," while everyone thought the astronauts were exploring the moon "for all mankind," they were really off discovering a crashed alien spacecraft.

Click to enlarge and view in a new window. (Paramount Pictures)

But that's not all Bay did to transform Apollo. Although the teaser is only about two and a half minutes long, it packs in a surprising number of changes to how the 1969 moon landing — and to quote the trailer, "a generation's greatest achievement" — was accomplished.

Where exactly was Tranquility Base?

Within seconds of touching down on the moon on July 20, 1969, Armstrong — the real Armstrong — gave the Apollo 11 landing site its name.

Composite photograph of Apollo 11's Eagle lunar module on the moon at Tranquility Base. (NASA/Ed Hengeveld)

"Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed," radioed the Apollo 11 commander, borrowing "Tranquility" from Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility — the area on the moon where they landed.

Back on Earth however, flight controllers did not know exactly where the lunar module "Eagle" now rested. They tasked Michael Collins, who was orbiting the moon aboard the command module "Columbia," to try to spot Eagle as he flew over but he was moving too fast and as such, was unsuccessful.

It wasn't until the mission was over that the exact location of Tranquility Base was determined, based largely on the moonwalkers' description of the area, their photographs and their spacecraft's telemetry.

One thing that Mission Control could be certain of though, was that Apollo 11 was on the side of the moon facing the Earth. Had they landed on the far side — the side that always faces off into space due to a peculiarity about the moon's orbit — all communications between Earth and the astronauts would have been cut off.

There were no communication satellites orbiting the moon that could relay the moonwalkers' voices and television broadcasts once they were out of the line of sight with the Earth.

In Transformers, the location of Tranquility Base is even less clear.

"Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon," reports Walter Cronkite, in a CBS news clip replayed during the trailer.

"Neil, you are dark on the rock," radios an unidentified man from what appears to be a back room at Mission Control in Houston.

Armstrong and Aldrin bounding over a boulder-strewn ledge of a crater to explore the alien spacecraft. (Paramount Pictures)

What follows is a scene showing Armstrong and Aldrin departing the vicinity of the Eagle lander, bounding over a boulder-strewn ledge of a crater to explore the crash site of a clearly alien spacecraft.

A wide shot reveals the Earth in the black sky above.

So where exactly were they? Did they secretly land on the far side of the moon? Or was Bay trying to depict a real nearby crater (though not as close as depicted)?

As Apollo 11 was the first attempt ever at landing men on the moon, NASA sought out an area that was geologically interesting but devoid of major obstacles like craters and boulders.

In reality, as Armstrong was piloting Eagle to a landing, he considered a site near the northeast slope of a large rocky crater, which they had dubbed West Crater during training. But the area was surrounded by a large boulder field and it would have required Armstrong to stop their approach short, neither situation ideal for a safe first landing.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the Apollo 11 landing site showing Little West and West craters. (NASA)

Ultimately, Armstrong piloted Eagle over another, smaller crater ("Little West Crater") before touching down at what would become Tranquility Base.

But what of the trailer's mention of the far side?

From what little it shows, that appears to be a cover story. A flick of a switch in a Mission Control back room seems to take Armstrong's and Aldrin's voice transmissions to an encrypted channel. Meanwhile, the rest of the world thinks there has been a loss of communications.

"We've now had confirmation of loss of signal from Apollo 11," reports Cronkite.

And how did Bay get Cronkite, who passed away in 2009, to help change history? Easy — he didn't.

The two clips from Cronkite's news reports did actually air in July 1969 but well before the landing as Columbia and Eagle passed behind the moon to enter lunar orbit.

Houston, we have a (spacecraft) problem

If locating the Transformers' version of Tranquility Base is a challenge, identifying exactly how Armstrong and Aldrin got there presents an even bigger problem.

Apollo 11's Columbia... missing Eagle. (Paramount Pictures)

The very first shot audiences see in the trailer is an Apollo command and service module firing its engine between the Earth to the moon.

The real Columbia did perform a 3.13-second engine burn on the way the moon, which is about the same length as the scene, but something is missing... Eagle!

During the real mission, Columbia did fly alone for a brief period of time before docking with the lunar module Eagle, but it certainly didn't do so while firing a course correction. Further, since the trailer provides views of Columbia from ahead and behind, it is clear that Eagle is no where to be found (to say nothing of the Saturn V rocket's third stage in which the lunar module was launched).

Before Columbia disappears from view though, a second problem is exposed: it has transformed — not into a robot, but a different Apollo spacecraft.

The trailer's very next scene shows Columbia docked with Eagle. Where did Eagle come from? No idea. But a closer look at Columbia's service module shows it has an open scientific instrument module, or SIM, bay — no relation to Michael Bay — which only flew on Apollo 15 and the later missions.

Eagle reappears, but so does a SIM bay... (Paramount Pictures)

Further, Columbia is now trailing what looks like a debris field, reminiscent of Apollo 13 (or perhaps "Apollo 13," the movie).

Eagle, after its mysterious arrival in lunar orbit, seems to fare better, at least while it's still in space. Once on the surface though, it too develops problems.

That's one small nitpick...

Re-staging one of, if not the most famous scenes in all of human history, the Transformers trailer takes audiences to the surface of the moon at the very moment Armstrong is about to first step foot on the surface.

"That's one small step for man..." Armstrong — again, the real one, courtesy a sound clip — proclaims.

The audio plays back over footage of the Transformers' Armstrong descending the ladder and then — timed with "giant leap" — jumping off directly on to the surface.

In reality, Armstrong did jump off the ladder's bottom rung but it was onto Eagle's footpad and he didn't speak his now famous words until taking a step off that pad.

Missing MESA means no giant leap on TV. (Paramount Pictures)

This scene also raises the question as to how the millions back on Earth ever got to see that famous "small step" in the first place. During the real mission, one of the first things Armstrong did after crawling out onto Eagle's porch was to deploy a small shelf that swung open on the side of the lunar module to reveal, among other things, the TV camera that broadcast his climb down to the surface.

In the trailer, it appears that the Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly, or MESA, remains closed.

"Dark of the moon," indeed.

And while on the subject of cameras, the trailer introduces another anomaly based on how the astronauts' recorded their activities. As Armstrong and Aldrin explore the alien craft, both have Hasselblad cameras attached to the front of their spacesuits.

It might be a minor nitpick, but that's one too many. Only one such camera used on Apollo 11 (which incidentally, is why there are no portraits of Armstrong on the surface of the moon, as for the most part, he always had the one and only camera).

Armstrong on the moon, but he still has the camera. (Paramount)

Transforming Apollo

At one point, the trailer describes the lunar mission as "a secret hidden for 40 years." The real secret — alien robot spacecraft aside — is that the Apollo 11 mission as it was recreated in Transformers: Dark of the Moon was different in key ways from the real mission that made history four decades ago.

Will Bay, who shot scenes at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Houston, further transform space history when the film is released in July 2011? Time will tell if more than meets the eye.

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