The moon has enchanted humankind, tickled the imagination that conjured up men or frogs or rabbits making mochi. Yet President John F. Kennedy didn’t care about mochi or green cheese. Kennedy set us on a course to catch up with the cosmonauts who beat the US into space. Our destination was the moon and could have been Mars. “Chasing the Moon,” a three-part documentary on PBS explains the socio-political setting that began and then stalled US efforts in space as well as some of the more mundane concerns.
If you’ve already seen Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” you’ll have an idea of the pressures that the late Neil Armstrong faced. Matt Zoller Seitz noted that “If you want to get an almost first-person sense of what it felt like to fly in one of the earliest supersonic planes or ride a rocket into orbit and beyond, ‘First Man’ is the movie to see. More so than other films about the US space program, including ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Apollo 13,’ it makes the experience seem more wild and scary than grand, like being in the cab of a runaway truck as it smashes through a guardrail and tumbles down the side of a mountain.”
Todd Douglas Miller’s wondrous documentary “Apollo 11” also explains the mechanics, but American Experience “Chasing the Moon” fills out the before, during and after and is the first entry in the PBS Summer of Space.
Part One, “A Place Beyond the Sky,” (1916 – 2009) (Monday, July 8, 2019, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET.) begins with CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite bringing us the news. Part of the problem (that Miller’s documentary addresses) is that at the time it was essentially a “radio story” of disembodied voices and no visuals. By the time Apollo 11 and the moon landing was a possibility, the man who set it into motion, President John F. Kennedy, was dead. The build up toward the moon mission involved competition with the cosmonauts who beat the US into space. There’s mention of Nazis, fornicating polar bears and astronaut groupies so use your judgment if you let you kids watch the documentary.
In Part Two (July 9), “Earthrise,” looks at the public relations machine behind the Gemini and Apollo programs where all the astronauts were expected to go out on publicity missions, but where two people became unexpected stars: Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a “computress” who became first woman in NASA’s flight control room and Ed Dwight, Jr., the first African American astronaut candidate.
You might be surprised to learn that people like Rev. Ralph Abernathy, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the summer of 1969, led about 500 protestors in a demonstration outside the Kennedy Space Center at the time of the Apollo 11 launch. In a recent telephone interview, Dwight, who hasn’t seen the full documentary yet, commented that at the time he didn’t know about Abernathy’s protest, but he understands that the plight of the poor in the US turned an eye toward economic realities, questioning the choice of federal government expenditures.
Dwight does recall that “in the very, very beginning, Dr. King was dead set against the whole idea of having a black astronaut.” King, was a leader of the Civil Rights movement was more concerned about “a lot of basic rights that we didn’t have” such as “eating at lunch counters.” King “didn’t want anything coming that would take attention away from that.” Looking at contemporary examples, Dwight noted that Senator McConnell has scoffed at reparations because having a “black president should be enough.”
Putting a black man into the space program was something that President Kennedy wanted and even insisted on. According to Dwight, that was because of a promise made to Whitney Young. When Kennedy needed the black vote, Harry Belafonte put him in touch with some black leaders, including Young. The Kentucky-born Young was focused on employment discrimination and at age 40 in 1961, became the executive director of the National Urban League.
“Earthrise” notes Southern Democratic control of committees brought much of the space program to Southern states which was an additional obstacle to diversity. Yet it notes that Dwight received a considerable amount of mail, something that made Ed White (1930-1967), the first American to walk in space, realize how important Dwight was when the two Eds got confused. Dwight recalls, “I got 1,500 letters a day, coming from all over the world.” The mail included both proposals of marriage as well as a little hate mail–most of the hate mail was from the north.
Dwight noted that the US wasn’t ready for a black astronaut because the astronauts had to seem “heroic” and at the time, heroic black men and heroic women were something American culture wasn’t ready for.
Northcutt recalls that as a young attractive woman, she got a lot of attention and some opportunities, but she that “all women at the time were swimming in the sea of sexism.” Northcutt worked at NASA as a contractor through TRW and when the funding dried up, she went into the legal field. Her memories of Apollo 11 are that “it was so very normal.” She explained, “When you’re simulating and planning for missions, you’re dealing with things that have gone wrong. The most surprising thing about 11 was almost everything was going right.”
“Earthrise” also covers the tragedy of Apollo 1, how the late Doris Day both promoted her own film (the 1966 “The Glass Bottom Boat”) and NASA’s program, fecal containment systems and what happens when one’s sick in space.
“Magnificent Desolation,” the last episode of “Chasing the Moon” begins with mathematician and musical satirist Tom Lehrer singing about Wernher von Braun. The actual title come from Buzz Aldrin as both his description of the lunar surface and the title of his second autobiography.
Von Braun had not only been a member of the Nazi Party in his native Germany during World War II, he had been an SS officer. After his capture by the Allied forces, Von Braun and others in his group were brought to the US in autumn of 1945. He would become the chief architect of the Apollo Saturn V rocket, but Von Braun wasn’t the only “war criminal” on the minds of Americans after the moon landing had been achieved. The tide was turning against President Richard M. Nixon. Although former president Lyndon B. Johnson thought the US should commit to sending a man to Mars by the end of the century, astronauts like Frank Borman recalled how the PR tours were no longer friendly. His visit to Cornell was “like going into an enemy camp.” Essentially, “Magnificent Desolation” answers why the Apollo program and moon landings stopped and how that prevented us from considering manned missions to Mars.
Other PBS programming in their Summer of Space includes NOVA “Back to the Moon”(Broadcast Premiere: 7/10/2019), “8 Days: To the Moon and Back” (Broadcast Premiere: 7/17/2019), NOVA “The Planets” and reprises of “A Year in Space” (July 17), “The Farthest – Voyager in Space” (July 31) and “To Catch a Comet” (August 7).
Pasadena’s Rose Bowl is the launching pad for a traveling immersive fictional experience “Apollo 11.” I’ll be seeing this next weekend, but for the press they let us inspect their replica of the lunar module. At a 10 percent smaller scale, for someone the size of a 12-year-old and thus more than 10 percent smaller than the average American mane, the capsule seems frighteningly small, something that I had not realized watching “Apollo 11,” “First Man” or “Chasing the Moon.”
The Next Giant Leap already has the groundwork being laid by NASA with the Rovers constructed at JPL-NASA. The next Rover will launch in July 2020 and touch down on Mars in February 2021.