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Lunar TV: Celebrating the Moon Landing
July 7, 2019  | By Mike Hughes
 

As moon-landing films fill our screens, something becomes clear – the world has changed profoundly in the past 50 years.
  
These documentaries (see listings below) show a 1969 when:
 
– Americans were obsessed with the Soviet threat. It "really was kind of war by another means," said Robert Stone (whose three-night film starts Monday, July 8, on PBS).
– The space program was all white. It went 23 years before having a black man in space.
– And it was virtually all male. You can ask Poppy Northcutt (below), who was the lone woman at Mission Control.
 
Northcutt shows up in films on National Geographic and PBS. On the second day of the PBS film, we see a blitz of news stories about her. An interviewer posed a question that was no doubt typical by asking how co-workers react to someone young, pretty, and in a mini-skirt.
 
"At that time, every American woman – as well as women around the world – lived in a sea of sexism," Northcutt recalled. Back then, she persisted pleasantly in order to promote the space program. "But that process was part of what enlightened my future."
 
A future that has been rich and varied for her. "I became a very active feminist," said Northcutt, 75. "I ended up as the Women's Advocate for the City of Houston... Then I went to law school and was the first felony prosecutor in a domestic violence unit in Harris County." 

Then came the National Organization of Women – on the national board and heading the Texas unit. "I tell people I'm a one-time rocket scientist, sometime-lawyer, and a full-time women's rights activist."
 
She's now working in a time when women are astronauts and flight engineers and, for that matter, the heads of both PBS and the National Geographic Channel. Fifty years ago, things were simple and stark.
 
This moon-documentary surge was boosted by a massive collection of NASA film and recordings.
 
"Imagine a footage archive that looks like the final scene in (Raiders of the Lost Ark)," said Tom Jennings, who made National Geographic's Apollo: Missions to the Moon.
 
In short, imagine a mega-warehouse, packed with artifacts. "We take a deep dive and try to find things that haven't been seen in a long, long time," he said.
 
He succeeded, said Garrett Reisman, an ex-astronaut who is in Jennings' film. "I've watched a lot of documentaries ever since I was a little kid. I was seeing stuff in this film that I had no idea existed."
 
Like Reisman, Stone has been big on space ever since he was young. "My entire childhood was just infused with watching the rockets go off," he said. "We were going to the moon."

It was an exciting time, he said – but not in the way people assumed. "There wasn't a race to the moon... The Russians weren't really in the game."
 
He had a reliable source for this information – Sergei Khrushchev, 84, now an American citizen, who taught at Brown and elsewhere. During the moon race, Khrushchev was a Soviet engineer and his father (Nikita) was premier of the Soviet Union, which launched the space race with its Sputnik satellite.
 
It "completely shocked the Soviets that the United States paid any attention to Sputnik at all," Stone said. "They were like, 'What? You're freaking out over this?' "
 
For a time, they kept beating America to other space goals. Still, Stone said, Russia had no real moon program. But Wernher von Braun, head of the U.S. effort, kept "telling everybody that, 'We gotta beat the Russians' as a way to get money, but the Russians really weren't in the game."
 
That game ended on July 20, 1969, with the Apollo 11 moon landing. The public lost interest a little then was gripped two missions later, when the Apollo 13 (below) crew seemed to be stranded in space.
 
That's viewed in the National Geographic film that traces all of the Apollo missions (Apollo: Missions to the Moon). During the Apollo 13 crisis, the public may have panicked – but the astronauts didn't.
 
"A lot of people on the ground were probably getting less sleep than I was up there," insists former astronaut Fred Haise. "I think Apollo 13 had the second-most-accurate splashdown of the program."
 
That was the specialty of Poppy Northcutt, who was then a re-entry expert. "You simulate, you simulate, you simulate," she said. "And you rise to the occasion." 

Here's a sampling of moon-oriented primetime shows; all are subject to change:

 
Sunday, July 7
Apollo Moon Shot, 7 and 8 p.m. ET, Smithsonian
The Day We Walked on the Moon, 9 p.m. ET, Smithsonian
Apollo: Missions to the Moon, 9 p.m. ET National Geographic 

Monday, July 8
Chasing the Moon, three nights, July 8-10, 9 p.m. ET, PBS (check local listings)
The Armstrong Tapes, 9 p.m. ET, National Geographic
 
Wednesday, July 10
Nova: Back to the Moon,8 p.m. ET, PBS (check local listings)
  
Sunday, July 14
Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes, 10:03 p.m. ET, History
 
Tuesday, July 16
Man on the Moon, 10 p.m. ET, CBS
Nova: Apollo's Daring Mission 10 p.m. ET, PBS (check local listings)
 
Wednesday, July 17
8 Days: to the Moon and Back, 9 p.m. ET, PBS (check local listings)
 
Friday, July 19
Wonders of the Moon, 10 p.m. ET, BBC America
 
Saturday, July 20
Apollo: The Forgotten Films, 8 p.m. ET, Discovery
Moon Landing Live, 9 p.m. ET, BBC America
 
 
 
 
 
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