Coming to PBS July 8th-10th from American Experience and Academy Award Nominee writer/director/producer Robert Stone is the six-hour series celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing with CHASING THE MOON.
Part One – A Place Beyond the Sky begins the series in the 50s and 60s with the thoughts of astronauts regarding going to space. Neil Armstrong made his indelible and small speech before planting his boot on the moon surface and in his words ring true today. Little did he realize it is used in so many other forms to recognize that we are in a very big universe.
There was a time when people could not fathom “being born on this planet and then taking off for another world”. The world was taking on a new identity and the people in it reflecting on how nothing could possibly ever be the same.
Beginning with Russia and Sputnik, it pushed the US to do one better than the enemy. It also brought fear of war and destruction. When Sputnik II was launched, the American fear becomes even greater as rumors of what they could do next before the US – the moon.
The Vanguard Project was sent up first followed by Jupiter C. Scientist Wernher von Braun from Germany was considered a hero and not a hero all at the same time. World War II brought 120 of the best scientists from that country to be part of looking for a way to space. Becoming a consultant on films about space, von Braun would even help Walt Disney with his theme park.
Project Orion and Freeman Dyson were called in to work on it. Flights and living for years exploring space was their goal. Russia also brought in German scientists to expand their space program. When it didn’t work out, the Germans are sent home which benefitted the US. In 1959, Nixon and Khrushchev talked between each other in harsh terms at the Worlds Fair in Moscow about space.
Then the introduction of the Mercury astronauts with John H. Glenn, Alan B. Shepard, Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Malcolm S. Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Donald K. Slayton. As the training of these men goes on, Russia sends a cosmonaut up in 1961. President John F. Kennedy isn’t happy and von Braun tells him they can make it to the moon first. The Saturn rocket then comes into being.
Alan Shepard starts as the first man in space and makes sure it is done live. Still, another cosmonaut makes his way into space and President Kennedy gives NASA the money to get to the moon. Construction in Florida brings people out in droves because of NASA. The excitement builds as John Glenn is the first US astronaut to go into orbital flights.
Television and journalists like Walter Cronkite brought space into homes of the average American. The intensity of interest from the public was kept in the forefront. Bobby Kennedy wanted to bring an African-American astronaut on board as Capt. Edward Dwight was brought into training.
In Houston, the families came to live and formed their own ‘space’ family. The Mercury men were young pilots and had to be watched. It was 1962 when the decision was made to go from the earth to the moon while transporting a vehicle for moon exploration. President Kennedy thought to have joint missions to the moon with the Soviets as both sides wanted it to happen. All of that changed on November 22, 1963. After that the idea was silenced.
In Part II – Earthrise – President Lyndon Johnson took up the mantle for the space program, even picking up the JFK mantle of Soviet cooperation. Now, the Soviets were behind the US in the space race. The Gemini Project brings computers aboard in outer space. A serious problem was that reporters were starting to question why space and at what cost? NASA had to do what they could to keep the public relations good with the public.
With each Gemini launch, NASA was getting closer to the moon. The Gemini 8 launch was the first craft to have problems as the ship rolled out of control. Neil Armstrong brought it all home with his cool head and abilities. The final Gemini 12 launches with Buzz Aldren and James Lovell and becomes successful in teaching how to train for space.
The first Apollo mission crew is announced with Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger B. Chaffee. Then tragedy as none ever expected even though the astronauts all knew it was possible. The affect on the other astronauts caused stresses that went down to family members. They were a family and now their family was broken.
NASA dealt with a media nightmare that once again brought into question of ‘why space?’ But 1968 brought civil unrest and wars to the forefront of life yet NASA still wouldn’t let go. The Saturn 5 was conceived to put men on the moon.
And what a show! Now the interest in once again peaked by the media and a shot of the moon to beat the Russians right in front of them. The accelerated Apollo 8 brought an orbit of the moon. One person there from the beginning was also the first woman, Poppy Northcutt, in a very serious job. Now Anderson, Borman and Lovell, who are inside the powerful rocket, finally bring a dream to reality. Of course doing it at 25,000 miles an hour. Once in space, there would be a television camera on board that give the people of Earth a good look at what they had all been waiting for.
Once home, people celebrated and cheered after a year of sadness in the country.
Part III – Magnificent Desolation – brings the question involving von Braun in World War II that were never asked before because he was helping the US get to the moon. Once they questions started being asked from the media, von Braun had to take each question carefully, especially when the questions dealt with Nazi atrocities.
The US was also changing as protests grew on college campuses while soldiers continued to fight overseas and this applied to astronauts. Russia was still a hot topic and they were also trying to get a man to the moon before the US. Dealing with failures, the N1 Project took it all step by step. Col. Borman was asked about Russia landing on the moon and he agreed that they were just as motivated as the US.
Now, the Apollo 11 crew was being introduced with Buzz Aldren, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong making the trip. This was going to be the crew to land on the moon as 2 out of the 3 actually stepping on the moon’s surface. Russia had ideas of their own launching an unmanned craft to the moon at the same time.
People converged near the landing pad to witness the next Apollo launch. Some were even protestors who were unhappy about social injustice. On July 16, 1969, the promise of President Kennedy made about reaching the moon is one rocket launch away. Countries around the world were also glued to watch the launch. Waiting for the lunar module to land on the moon was the culmination of a dream turned reality. On July 20th, 1969, the cameras are on and rolling as the world see Neil Armstrong descend the lunar ladder and say, “one small step for man – one giant leap for mankind”.
Soon he would be joined by Buzz Aldren as the two men walked on the moon and the world in their line of sight celebrated this monumental achievement. The celebration continued when the astronauts landed safely back on Earth. Their lives have been completely changed and they could never have imagined how much to this day.
So where do we go from here now that we’ve been shown the beauty of our own world from the surface of another? Of course Mars holds the mystery now as the moon once did so perhaps that is our next man made challenge. There are so many worlds, so much beauty and a dash of charm about the space that surrounds our Earth.
I wonder who will be next in planting their foot on the surface of another world!
Filmmaker Stone says of this experience, “As a 10-year-old kid in England in July 1969, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to watch two Americans set foot upon another world, the Moon quite literally staring at us through the window above our television set. I’d recently seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the one-two punch of those two intensely visceral experiences ignited a fire in my mind that’s stuck with me ever since.”
“It’s when I first began to want to be a filmmaker. In many ways Chasing the Moon is a culmination of a lifetime of thoughts that have been churning through my mind about this extraordinary period in which I grew up, about the boundless ambition and promise of a brighter future that space travel inspired, the belief that anything is possible if we join together in a common goal, and the urgency it ignited to preserve and care for our home planet. Having PBS as a partner to take this film out worldwide is a real honor for me.”
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samuels says about Chasing the Moon, “When we think of that breathtaking moment of the 1969 moon landing, we forget what a turbulent time that was. The country was dealing with huge problems in Vietnam, poverty, civil rights – and there was a lot of skepticism about the space program. Chasing the Moon explores the unbelievably complex challenges that NASA was able to overcome. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t say, ‘Why can’t we do something today as ambitious, as grand as putting a man on the moon?’ It was a century-defining achievement, and our film tells a familiar story in an entirely new way”.
Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, also has a book Chasing the Moon by Stone and writer/researcher Alan Andres that expands on the stories told in the documentary. The details found in the book are absolutely riveting to the point that I couldn’t put the book down. The surprise to me is that I knew I have always been interested in NASA, I just didn’t realize how much until page after page I was wanting to know more.
For 30 years, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been television’s most-watched history series. Their documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award including 30 Emmy Awards, four DuPont-Columbia Awards and 17 George Foster Peabody Awards. The series received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2015 for Last Days of Vietnam. For more information please visit pbs.org/americanexperience.
Along with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Chasing the Moon, PBS brings viewers the universe with SUMMER OF SPACE, a multiplatform experience that includes six new science and history programs, all commemorating America’s journey into Space. The celebration kicks off July 8 with a new space-themed ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Out of This World, NOVA specials Back to the Moon on July 10, 8 Days: To the Moon and Back on July 17, three-part Ancient Skies on July 24 and The Planets on July 24. For more information please visit www.pbs.org.
Chasing the Moon is a three-part experience that allows those involved to tell their stories and personal experiences. Listening to them share also opens up behind the curtain of NASA during a time when every move they made was dangerous. Everyone wanted to get to space and the moon but I’m sure no one then realizes the cost of making that dream come true.
As outsiders, we only witnessed the results of years of dedication and ingenuity but Chasing the Moon allows us to know so much more. This is a stunning way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 walk on the moon. A way to remember where we have been and what is absolutely possible for space in the future.
Gather the family around the same television that families 50 years ago gathered around except this time to listen and learn about one of the greatest human achievements ever.
In the end – it took millions of steps to make one giant leap!