by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019
50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.
Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.
PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.
I also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.
There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.
Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?
Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.
Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.
There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.
There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?
5 thoughts on “Retelling Space History in 1080i”
Enjoyed reading your memories of The Space Race. I DVR’d Chasing The Moon- last night- looking forward to watching all 3 episodes in the series.
“For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.” — Some such ‘facts’ are nasty myths arising for partisan ideological purpose, more likely. NASA never trained Dwight. The second cohort was selected in 1962, before Dwight even began USAF test pilot training. The third cohort was picked by NASA in 1963, and only two of Dwight’s class of a dozen pilots were selected, and he admits he wasn’t a top student because of all the away-from-school White Hose lecture tours he had been sent on. There is NO first or even second hand corroboration of the alleged Yeager ‘cold-shoulder’ comment, ONLY Dwight’s third hand version, ZERO independent validation.
That’s quite interesting, Mr. Oberg. I was summarizing what I remembered from the PBS documentary, and I might have gotten details wrong. Have you seen the documentary or read the book Chasing the Moon? Did the documentary and book state the facts properly? I enjoyed the documentary a great deal because I felt like it presented new historical information. I almost didn’t watch it because I worried it would only rehash all the books and documentaries I’ve seen and read in the last fifty years.
I had never even heard about Dwight before. So it is true he was given a chance? Were there other African-American test pilots at the time?
Was it true that JFK tried to get the Russians to make the moon mission a joint effort?
I reviewed the book, and enjoyed the series — a lot to like in both. The Dwight story was one of a pioneer who inspired others to surpass him [including Charlie Bolden, who became NASA administrator after his astronaut duties].
As a retired ‘rocket scientist’ I was concentrating on the media treatment of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo-11 mission last summer, and was puzzled by the monotone major media and PBS “Yes BUT” style of coverage that admitted the flight was a great thing but added subtexts of ‘don’t forget the Nazis’ and ‘NASA was mean to women and minorities’ in practically every article and broadcast. For the NY Times, they highlighted a story of how a black USAF pilot named Ed Dwight was denied his rightful place on a moon landing mission by fierce racist mistreatment, and ultimately by the assassination of his sponsor, JFK. Along with that story, which was reprinted worldwide, they issued a string of self-congratulatory analyses of their own journalistic awesomeness in finding and spreading the story.
But the historic record contradicts the NY Times on every particular. Dwight was a talented, charismatic young pilot who had had a smooth early career [including being allowed to train as a pilot even though he was an inch below the minimum height requirement] and got into a pair of six-month test pilot classes in 1962-3, from which astronauts for the USAF and NASA were often selected. Somebody in the Kennedy Administration [most accounts point to Robert Kennedy] leaned on the USAF to get a black pilot into the astronaut corps and these classes were the first step.
In later years Dwight complained he had been viciously opposed by the school commandant, the legendary Chuck Yeager, who according to Dwight [based on third-hand hearsay] had instructed the other students to shun and isolate Dwight to drive him out. But not even the NY Times could find a single actual witness to this order, nor any actual actions to implement it [Dwight graduated on schedule]. Yeager vigorously denied ever saying it.
The top two pilots of that class were picked by NASA for its 1963 astronaut group. Dwight indicated to the NY Times that his class standing wasn’t so high but he had a legitimate excuse in that the White House wanted him to take three-day weekends all that year to fly around the country giving speeches, while all the other students stayed on base studying and flying [In Dwight’s autobiography he blames Yeager for permitting him to go, as a mean trick to sabotage his studies]. According to the NY Times, quoting Dwight, selecting for the highest demonstrated skill levels wasn’t really important anyway since the spacecraft was continuously under remote control from Houston and the astronaut was only a passive passenger anyway [which was most emphatically NOT true, something the NY Times failed to notice].
Nevertheless the NY Times implied a cause-and-effect by reporting that after JFK was killed, ‘within a month Dwight’s career at Edwards AFB was over” [and he was transferred out] when he wasn’t picked as one of the candidates that NASA wanted. But that selection had already been made two months BEFORE the assassination, and Dwight’s class at the school at Edwards had always been scheduled to end in December. At that point, all the graduates were assigned to test pilot duty in important positions [Dwight was sent to Wright-Patterson AFB as ‘Deputy for Flight Test’ for the US Bomber Command, hardly a punishment].
But the media representations, taking their cue from the NY Times, carried the fictitious version where Dwight had been all set for NASA astronaut selection and ultimately assignment to a subsequent moon landing mission until racists squashed his chances. It was reported that Deke Slayton, the chief of the astronaut office, “learned that some of the white astronaut candidates had refused to fly with Dwight, and Slayton pushed him out of the program” [no evidence this ever happened, or COULD have happened]. Wikipedia [and other websites] had referred to ‘racist hostility from NASA astronauts’ although Dwight never even got to NASA or as far as is known ever even visited the astronaut center in Houston.
The NY Times story was full of other technical errors about spaceflight that indicated they had never even tried to fact-check the text with subject-matter experts. For example, it claimed he had an astounding 9000 hours of flight time, which was three times as much as any other pilot accepted by NASA in 1963, when he actually had about 2200 hrs when accepted at the test pilot school, a respectable amount at that point in his career. The opening paragraph presents the preposterous image of ‘gravitational forces’ ripping out a pilot’s eyeballs, when the misunderstood effect of “G forces” are acceleration stresses [measured in units of gravity, but not true gravity]. Clearly, nobody with the slightest familiarity with flying aircraft was ever giving the task of reviewing the manuscript before publication [the author’s bio shows no previous treatment of spaceflight, science, or any sort of aviation, and her Twitter account bio suggests she was actually a free-lancer].
Surveying the media coverage of this story, and the hundreds of reader comments posted that expressed outrage at ‘white privilege’ and ‘whitesplaining’ when confronted with verifiable facts contrary to the narrative, was extremely dismaying. But I didn’t realize until reading news on the NY Times “1619” editorial policy that such reader reaction was evidently the only real goal of such [mis]reporting. And if respected institutions such as NASA, and respected heroes such as Chuck Yeager and Deke Slayton, need to be falsely smeared to accomplish this, seemingly that’s acceptable to them. Sad, and shameful to the media outlets who promulgated these false accusations.
Can something be done before future obituaries [Yeager and Dwight are pretty old] rekindle these hurtful myths?
There are at least three factors that present these problems. I know I can’t solve any of them. Few people read my blog. You have more clout I would think, but I’m not sure if it’s enough.
1. I believe the news outlet felt compelled to dig for stories that hadn’t been told before for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. And like most ambitious reporters they wanted scoops that would get noticed. However, news reporting standards seem to be in the decline, and these reporters are probably young and don’t have the historical background to discern fact from fiction.
2. This generation wants to condemn older generations for the ills of society. And our generation did commit a lot of sins, but the younger generation can’t comprehend the context of the past. They aren’t forgiving, and often zealous. They often judge by passion and gossip, rather than with logic and wisdom. Even though the Moon landing was a triumph for our society in the 1960s, the current generation wants to judge those times for its sins too.
3. The people like yourself who know better, who are the scholars of our times, are ignored because the current generation won’t listen to older generations. As we move away from past events, time and popular culture distort history. I’ve read your books, so I know you know how hard it is to present history, but most readers don’t. History is whatever they hear because most often that’s what they believe. Few people are skeptical. Few use any rules of thumb to judge what they hear.
Did you challenge the New York Times? What was the response? They claim to be better than most news sources on dealing with accuracy?
I worried about Yeager’s reputation too when I saw that report. I didn’t want to believe it. I worried it was true. I figured it was coming from PBS and I trust them. I’m not sure you can do anything about those reports now. You could write a definitive history/biography but would it change popular gossip? That’s the whole thing about fake news. Like Pandora’s box, once something is out you can’t get it back in the box.
In the science fiction field, young people are trying to erase certain writers and editors from history, like John W. Campbell. They now condemn him as a racist and fascist. He was racist, but so were most Americans before 1970. He wasn’t a fascist. His successes are being erased because of his sins. His name was removed from the award created in his honor. I’m not sure anyone now can write anything that will rescue his reputation.