Tale of a Fallen Astronaut

Tale of a Fallen Astronaut

2019 may have been the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, but 2021 offers up another equally cosmic 50th birthday nod, the placement of the one and only artwork on the Moon’s surface.


This is the subject of Dutch doc filmmaker Frank Herrebout’s latest feature doc Fallen Astronaut,which will be completed March 2020. 


Back in 1971, the Belgian artist Paul van Hoeydonck met astronauts David Scott, Jim Irwin and Alfred Worden, who were soon to embark on that year’s Apollo 15 mission, at a dinner party. The meeting had been arranged to discuss the possibility of Van Hoeydonck creating a small and modernist statuette of an astronaut that they could take onto their spacecraft and subsequently place on the moon. 


It all seemed beautiful and simple, but very soon confusion reigned as it became obvious that all parties, as well as NASA, had fundamentally different ideas about what had actually been agreed to. 


Van Hoeydonck imagined that his statue would be placed upright on the surface and named ‘Space Traveller’. 


Commander Scott’s interpretation was somewhat different, that it should be placed in a prone position together with a list of the names of all the astronauts who had died during previous space missions, and named ‘Fallen Astronaut’. 


Alarmingly for Van Hoeydonck, the statue was also placed without the perspex cylinder he had designed to encase it. And to add insult to injury, he was forbidden by NASA (at least initially) from mentioning his involvement with the project.


Director Herrebout first heard about the story when he received a poetry book in 2015, written by the recently deceased poet Sybren Polet. The pair had first met in 1985 when Herrebout was looking to adapt the poet’s science-fiction story ‘Mannekino’. 


“Polet’s poetry book had a special sculpture [designed by Van Hoeydonck] connected to it,” explains Herrebout. “When Polet died, his wife gave me the book together with the sculpture as a present for our friendship. Inside the book there was a little note saying that a small statue created by Van Hoeydonck had been placed on the Moon. I never knew anything about this story, and I was immediately intrigued. Who was this artist? Is he still alive? Is the story true? At first I thought it was a hoax. I didn’t believe it could be true.”


And so Herrebout set out to meet Van Hoeydonck in order to tell the astonishing story of the statue and its lunar location, and how what was intended as a message to the future became a seemingly oblivious footnote in the histories of both art and space travel. At first, it took some time for Van Hoeydonck to overcome his unwillingness to talk about an episode that he believed had ruined his life and career. 


As Herrebout notes, “It was a dream come true, but then it became a complete nightmare for the artist.” 


The story becomes increasingly complex as Van Hoeydonck decides to sell replicas of the statuette, which NASA fundamentally objects to. But there is an eventual note of redemption as the artist eventually receives public recognition for the artwork after the Smithsonian Institute in the US exhibits a fully-attributed replica of the original.


Is the nonagenarian Van Hoeydonck a reliable witness to events that happened such a long ago? “Not always,” Herrebout replies. “Which is why I researched and checked everything that he told me. One of the stories was that Nixon approved the fact that the sculpture was going to the Moon. I have found no proof of this, and I very much doubt it as it was a last minute decision taken by the people from NASA and I really don’t think they asked Nixon’s approval.”


The story of Van Hoeydonck is one of regret, that of a man who thought he would be as famous as Picasso but who became embroiled instead in a tale of top-level secrecy and cover-up. A happy footnote however is the strong friendship that he developed with Apollo 15 command pilot Alfred Worden in later life. “This was very important for the artist, together with the recognition by the Smithsonian which made him feel more appreciated and respected,” Herrebout reflects.


As well as the feature-length version, Herrebout is cutting a 50-minute version ahead of broadcast on Flemish station VRT.