Updated: Jul 21, 2019
“AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: CHASING THE MOON”
Blu-ray, DVD; 2019: Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, PBS.org, Vudu
Best extra: “Interview with Robert Stone,” creator/producer
TIME to celebrate! It’s been 50 years since the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon July 20, 1969.
Those were the days. Huge crowds headed for Cape Canaveral, now the Kennedy Space Center, to watch three astronauts – Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin – take off for the first landing on the moon. There would be no live footage on TV screens or Internet. There was no Internet! Only America’s most trusted journalist, Walter Cronkite, to guide us as we watched and listened. Until those now famous words were spoken:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong, astronaut
Getting to that moment took a while, beginning in the 1950s. Creator/Producer Robert Stone takes viewers though the times, the accomplishments and mishaps of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in a three-disc, 6 hour series from PBS, comprised mostly of archival news footage. It looks grainy and sound is mono, but clear. There are two bonus features, “Making ‘Chasing the Moon’: Interview with Robert Stone” and “Making ‘Chasing the Moon’: Behind the Scenes with Film Crew.” It follows the lunar landing from its conception and experiments to the landing, return home and aftermath.
Historical, behind-scenes and eye-witness material is fascinating and plentiful.
It’s not only about space. Glimpses of daily life in Cocoa Beach, Florida, at the start of the Mercury Program (1958-63), and in Houston, Texas, that earned the name “Space City” in 1967, show the differences between then and now. Imagine room on a beach to spread a blanket; highway traffic where there’s actually space between vehicles. Throwbacks, like myself, who can recall that time, can be dazzled by the memory. New generations probably won’t believe it.
Compared to coverage of the war in Vietnam, the space program inspired hope, which Stone and his crew show in addition to the political intrigue. Initially, America’s interest was in reaction to Soviet Russia’s success, launching modules and animals into space. Getting to the moon first began a race to win in the Cold War.
Charismatic President John F. Kennedy captured the world’s attention with his enthusiasm.
“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” — President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
No one imagined Kennedy would be dead a shade over a year later. Yet his dream lived on. American painter, designer and illustrator Chesley Bonestell, whose paintings appeared on the cover of Coliers and other magazines, provided tangible vision. Colliers, a weekly magazine, had millions of subscribers. It introduced the space program to the American public through a series of special articles on the possibilities of space flight. Walt Disney took up the baton, creating the world of the future, Tomorrowland, at his theme park. He partnered with German-American aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun to produce episodes on space exploration for his weekly TV series, “Wonderful World of Color.” Filmmakers sent scripts to von Braun to get his input. An abundance of science fiction magazines fueled the flames.
It became a space-frenzy, a “search for another Eden,” where, after its bloody history, mankind could find new ground to begin again. Understandably, Civil Rights leaders weren’t as impressed. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy led a protest at Cape Canaveral, claiming the $25 billion spent on the Apollo program could have been better spent elsewhere.
“We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty, hunger, and war prevail on the earth, we as a civilized nation have failed.“ — The Rev. Ralph Abernathy
But it was on – and competition increased.
Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, revealed the rival Soviets had ramped up their space program with an unmanned “secret lunar project, an automatic lunar system called Luna 15,” set to launch the same day as Apollo 11. They “wanted to land it on the moon the same way as Apollo.” And they planned to get there first.
The United States accepted the challenge.
“The goal is the moon, perhaps man’s oldest dream. If all goes well, some 112 hours and 50 minutes after liftoff, Neil Armstrong will step on the lunar surface. It shows what this, the richest nation in history, can do if it puts its mind to it.” — Walter Cronkite, Journalist
Apollo 11 and Luna 15 may have launched at the same time, but Apollo landed first, followed by its astronauts who walked and floated over the moonscape while CBS News and Walter Cronkite covered the event. The network had hired visual effects pioneer Doug Trumbull – of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Blade Runner” and “Silent Running” – to design a set and enactment of the landing. It came back to haunt CBS, with stories that the moon landing never happened.
Yet it did – and it was an unimaginable risk. Computers and equipment were primitive, everyone was inexperienced.
“I kept thinking, as the lunar module went down from the command module in lunar orbit, and got closer and closer and closer, I kept thinking they were going to abort … they’re not going to make it on the first try. Inconceivable in my eyes.” — Reporter Mark Bloom
Actual footage is now available and PBS shows it to its best effect. Despite everyone’s worst fears, the Apollo 11 landed on the moon; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped outside and walked on its surface, placing a plaque and an American flag – with some difficulty – on its rocky ground.
“The eagle has landed.” — Neil Armstrong, Astronaut
Spirits, like the lunar eagle, soared as the world listened and watched. There’s never been anything like it. But success was bittersweet. President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew considered the event a Cold War win, but were unwilling to pursue further missions. With the upsurge of the war in Vietnam and crazy politics (Watergate), public enthusiasm waned.
Still, there’s no denying the hope and accomplishment found in “Chasing the Moon,” how individuals working together achieved success. This is a binge watch that inspires!
— Kay Reynolds