PBS Doc Doesn’t Skip Over The Way the Moon Landing Sausage Was Made

Most television shows this month about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing — and it will be hard to turn on your TV without seeing one — essentially will celebrate the wonderfulness of the lunar landing and the Apollo program.

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President John F. Kennedy was enchanted with the Apollo program.

The whole enterprise exuded purity, the soaring, selfless concept of harnessing technology to fulfill humanity’s millennia-old dream of traveling to this distant, exotic rock that we previously knew only as a tantalizing white circle in the night sky.

Chasing the Moon, which airs Monday-Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET on PBS, doesn’t exactly argue with that. But producer/director Robert Stone also reminds us, frequently, that the enterprise had a more calculating and sometimes darker underside.

“Come in, Houston” turned into a national byword, for instance, because Congressman Albert Thomas (D-Texas), who had the power to turn National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funding on or off, represented a district that included Houston. His price to turn the faucet on: Build the space center in my yard.

While that’s not a crime or even a surprise in Washington, Stone’s inclusion of that fun fact reminds the viewer that not everyone thought only in terms of soaring human achievement.

Stone also takes time to address a point that’s visually glaring in every moon landing documentary: Pretty much everyone involved, from the astronauts to the decision-makers to the control panel crew, is a middle-aged white guy.

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Capt. Edward Dwight

Stone details how one black Air Force pilot, Capt. Edward Dwight, entered the astronaut training program and was led to expect he would be selected as part of a mission crew.

NASA went so far as to circulate his picture in Africa, where the agency had critical tracking stations, as a way of suggesting to insurgents on that restless continent that any damage to tracking stations could put a black man in danger.

In the end, Dwight was not selected, and the awkward press conference at which he is asked to address his rejection speaks volumes about 1960s America. When astronaut Deke Slayton is asked whether any “Negro” candidates had been among the finalists for that round of astronauts, he says no.

And speaking of the candidates who did make the cut to become astronauts, most other moon landing shows faithfully adhere to their public personae as all-American, straight-arrow good guys fresh out of a John Wayne movie.

In fact, a former NASA public relations man notes here, the agency on multiple occasions had to suppress stories about the conduct of their guys, because the truth could have jeopardized public support of the Apollo program, which was considered essential to maintain its funding.

Stone isn’t the first to suggest our astronaut team included a healthy share of competitive egos and some Big Man on Campus syndrome. Stone pokes into it here not so much to diminish anyone as to remind us the Apollo program employed human beings, not Marvel superheroes.

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Former President Lyndon Johnson and VP Spiro Agnew at Apollo 11 takeoff.

As perfect a triumph as the moon landing itself might still feel, Stone reminds us it came with costs and calculations.

President John F. Kennedy, whose buy-in to the space program was total, dismissed the idea that the billions spent on the Apollo program could have been better spent improving life on Earth. We can do both, he said.

That was not a unanimous sentiment. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy is seen here suggesting that if we put a man on Mars or Jupiter, but do not guarantee equality for men and women in Mississippi, we have failed.

On the moral side, Stone finds the seeds of the whole space exploration program in America’s urgent and largely successful effort after World War II to outbid the Russians for Nazi scientists. The tradeoff: Their work for Hitler, unlike the work of others in the Nazi machine, would become irrelevant.

The most famous recruit from that group, Dr. Wernher Von Braun, became the lead rocket scientist on Project Apollo.

He also became the subject of a ballad by Tom Lehrer that goes, in part, ”Some have harsh words for this man of renown / But some think our attitude / Should be one of gratitude / Like the widows and cripples in old London town / Who owe their large pensions / To Wernher Von Braun . . . .”

Von Braun isn’t a target in Chasing The Moon. He’s more a factoid, part of a story Stone clearly feels can’t be told without the whole picture.

Chasing the Moon scores as a first-rate documentary, because it captures the urgent, exultant and troubling sides of the Apollo mission. The 1960s was a roller coaster ride, from wars and assassinations to stunning achievement, and Stone crams his six hours full of contemporary footage that evokes all of it.

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