Trove Of Archival Footage Helps National Geographic Doc Tell Story Of Apollo Missions

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Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin stand near their spacecraft. (Otis Imboden/National Geographic Creative)
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin stand near their spacecraft. (Otis Imboden/National Geographic Creative)

Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 11 made its historic trip to the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on its surface.

The new National Geographic documentary "Apollo: Missions to the Moon" tells the story of the Apollo program using archival footage including NASA film, local TV reports and home movies. The show premieres on the National Geographic channel on Sunday.

Executive producer and director Tom Jennings and former astronaut and Columbia University professor Mike Massimino both say they vividly remember buzz surrounding Apollo program missions from when they were kids.

"For me, it was a very personal, emotional, meaningful thing when I was 6 years old and I watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon from my living room in suburban Long Island," Massimino (@Astro_Mike) tells Here & Now of the famous Apollo 11 flight. "I idolized those astronauts and it made me want to grow up and fly in space one day."

Jennings grew up in Cleveland, also home to Apollo 8 and later Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell. Apollo 8 launched on Dec. 21, 1968, and was the first mission to successfully orbit the moon before returning to Earth. Given the local appeal of Lovell's involvement, Jennings recalls the distinct sense of pride the area felt during Apollo 8.

"I remember being a little boy going to the corner store on Christmas Eve and looking up at the moon, and then looking down the street to where I lived, thinking, 'I have to get to my house so I can sit in my living room so I can watch these guys that are up there,' and really feeling almost overwhelmed with wonder at the time," Jennings says. "In putting the entire project together, I wanted to recapture that."

Interview Highlights

On the drive to make this documentary, and wanting to evoke how momentous the moon landing felt

Tom Jennings: "I think nostalgia first in that I'm old enough to remember the Apollo missions — the later missions certainly, starting with [Apollo] 8. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and one of the main astronauts from the Apollo program, Jim Lovell, is from Cleveland. And so because we had a local guy aboard Apollo 8 and then Apollo 13, it was very big news in my hometown. My memory is of Apollo 8 more than 11, and the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcasts which we feature in the film."

On the dangers of being an astronaut

Massimino: "I was getting ready to go to graduate school when the Challenger accident happened. It didn't change anything about my wanting to be an astronaut at that time. I wanted to pursue that. I think it's the most important thing we can be doing. It's our natural evolution of where we're going to go next, and ... who we really are."

On telling these stories through archival footage and photos, instead of relying on talking-head interviews

Jennings: "The way we approached it is we broke down the story of Apollo. We looked at the missions almost as a character, as if we were building a feature film of a fictional story. And we needed to do that in order to sort through the amount of material [we had]. We started this project a year and a half ago, and until we delivered the master, I can tell you up until a few days before, we were finding one more photo, or one more piece of footage, one more piece of audio that was just like, 'Oh, we could tweak that section out just a little bit more.' "

On favorite finds from the archives

Jennings: "I particularly liked the moments that showed the human face of people at the time. One was during the Apollo 11 landing, we found footage from Southern California, in Garden Grove, California, it was the nation's first drive-in church. And there were hundreds of cars parked at the drive-in church with a priest up underneath the movie screen saying a prayer for the astronauts of Apollo 11."

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin deploys a scientific experiment on the lunar surface a few yards away from the lunar module. (NASA)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin deploys a scientific experiment on the lunar surface a few yards away from the lunar module. (NASA)

On including comments about the cost of the space program, especially in the 1970s when the economy worsened

Jennings: "It was part of the story. It was a big part of the story. Once the mission had been completed, meaning Apollo 11 had sat down on the moon and men had walked on the moon, people started to ask questions about, 'Is it worth it?' And after Apollo 17, NASA stopped doing deep-space exploration. And I've talked with people who were NASA engineers at the time who said that if we had kept going, we would have landed on Mars 30 years ago. But that didn't happen, and a lot of the reason that didn't happen is because the funding was cut back and the desire to push farther into deep space wasn't there.

"It's important to understand that despite this great achievement, that things like politics and budget can affect how far we're willing to go. And so I wanted to make sure that was included as part of the story, even though in some ways it's tough to hear."

On the role of the space program today

Massimino: "We do have things that I would say are more important than the space program that keep people healthy and fed, I mean there's no doubt about it. But I think there's also something you need to put away for the future, and that's what I see our space program as. It's helped us understand our place in the universe, where we are, how we got here and it's also helped us understand our planet. And I think that it's been a source of inspiration and also a great way for countries to cooperate together. I think that it's worth that investment. It doesn't come quickly, the return, but it has come, and I think it's going to really skyrocket, so to speak, in the next few years."

Neil Armstrong's words upon landing on the moon, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," have been a source of much discussion since the 1969 lunar landing. Massimino took the opportunity to ask Armstrong about them when the two met at NASA.

Emiko Tamagawa produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 5, 2019.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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