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?