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Even after 50 years, it’s still possible to find new angles on one of history’s most widely witnessed events — as this year’s retellings of the Apollo 11 moon saga demonstrate.
The golden anniversary of the historic mission to the lunar surface in July 1969 provides the hook for a new wave of documentaries showing up in movie theaters and on video screens. Perhaps the best-known example is “Apollo 11,” which capitalized on recently rediscovered 70mm film footage from NASA’s vaults as well as 19,000 hours’ worth of audio recordings of Mission Control conversations.
But “Chasing the Moon,” a six-hour documentary series that premieres Monday on PBS, freshens the Apollo story in different ways. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Stone goes back to the roots of the U.S.-Soviet moon race and brings in perspectives that rarely get a share of the spotlight.
For example, Sergei Khrushchev, the son of ’60s-era Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, helps tell the Russian side of the story — including the fact that the “missile gap” used as the rationale for the President John Kennedy’s ramped-up space program didn’t actually exist. Just before his assassination in 1963, a budget-conscious Kennedy floated an offer to cooperate with the Soviets on moon missions — but the Soviets turned him down, for fear that their secrets would be exposed.
“Chasing the Moon” also turns the spotlight on hidden figures including Poppy Northcutt, the first woman engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the test pilot who seemed destined to become Apollo’s first black astronaut but lost his place after Kennedy’s death. (In the documentary, Dwight recalls how Ed White, one of the astronauts who would later die in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, kept getting fan mail that was meant for him instead.)
PBS is serving up several more final-frontier documentaries as part of its “Summer of Space” extravaganza, including a look at modern-day lunar exploration titled “Back to the Moon” (premiering July 10); “8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” a co-production with the BBC that includes dramatizations of moonshot moments (July 17); “Ancient Skies,” tracing the history of astronomy (July 24); and “The Planets,” a grand tour of the solar system (July 24). There’s even an online-only space series called “Stellar” and a book tie-in for “Chasing the Moon.”
National Geographic takes a different tack in its retelling of the Apollo story. Premiering on Sunday, “Apollo: Missions to the Moon” knits together a two-hour documentary that relies exclusively on archival video. Poppy Northcutt makes her appearance in a ’60s-era miniskirt. There’s an inside look at the lives of the astronauts’ families, courtesy of TV coverage from the time. And we see TV personalities and news anchors chronicling the space effort’s feats, foibles and failures as they happen.
The Smithsonian Channel is adding a twist of augmented reality to “Apollo’s Moon Shot,” its six-part documentary series: You can download an app for iOS or Android that gives you the sense of sitting inside the Apollo 11 command module, lets you take a selfie in a virtual spacesuit, or watch a Saturn V rocket lift off from your AR-enhanced surroundings.
In cooperation with the Smithsonian, USA Today and Florida Today are gearing up their 321 Launch augmented-reality app to track the Apollo 11 mission as it happened 50 years ago, on an hour-by-hour basis starting July 16. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation is offering it own AR app for iOS and Android called “JFK Moonshot.” And Microsoft has created an Apollo AR app for HoloLens — which unfortunately was involved in something of a misfire at its launch in May.
Book authors are also in the hunt for new angles to Apollo. When science writer Nancy Atkinson was doing the research for her newly published book, “Eight Years to the Moon,” she came across reports of a potentially catastrophic anomaly that occurred during the Apollo 11 command module’s re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. The problem was addressed by the time Apollo 13 was launched and faded into the background.
Atkinson said an engineer who was in on the Apollo 11 debriefings shared information about the anomaly with her for the book. The engineer also shared the details with the team working on NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule “so that the same problem doesn’t happen for future missions returning from the moon or elsewhere,” she told GeekWire.
You can get the full story in “Eight Years to the Moon,” starting on page 214. “Being honest here, I want people to buy the book!” Atkinson joked.
Last month we compiled a book roundup for Apollo anniversary reading, but here are a few more new works worthy of note:
- “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings” by space historian Roger Launius. He has another book coming out for the anniversary, titled “Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race.”
- “Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight,” a 256-page graphic novel by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm with a foreword by Apollo 11’s Michael Collins.
- “Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments,” a coffee-table book by J.L. Pickering and John Bisney featuring seldom-seen Apollo 11 images.
- “Sun and Moon: A Story of Astronomy, Photography and Cartography,” a quintessential coffee-table book by Mark Holborn that traces centuries of beyond-Earth imagery and imagination.
- “Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap for Friendship,” a children’s book by Susanna Leonard Hull with illustrations by Elisa Paganelli. For more top picks, check out “Emily’s Recommended Kids’ Space Books: Special Apollo 11 Anniversary Edition,” by the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla.