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‘Impossible’ ’69 moon mission soars in documentary

My fascination with America’s manned space program was neither logical nor practical. And the timing was terrible.

The decade from 1962 through 1972, which roughly encompassed the manned missions of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space projects, coincided for me with the monumental anxieties of high school, college and the few years immediately after graduation.

It was my “coming of age” period, which is another way of saying I was obsessed with myself. Like most kids, I was struggling to figure out who I was, what I believed in and cared about and what I might be able to do with my life here on Earth.

Granted, my positive family circumstances made it easier for me than for a lot of other young people, but life here on Earth got a lot more challenging after I graduated from college in 1969.

“Challenging,” as in war, peace, life and death.

Getting my degree had ended my student deferment from military service, making me eligible to be drafted for combat in America’s war in Vietnam. More than 11,614 American troops ended up being killed in 1969, the second-deadliest year of a war that took the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. service members overall.

In accordance with U.S. law, I had filed an application with my local draft board for reclassification as a conscientious objector to killing and war on moral and religious grounds. I had no way of knowing if or when the board would grant my application. (It eventually did.)

Dealing with my Earth-bound dilemmas and uncertainties demanded all the logic and practicality I could muster. But something else in 1969 seemed to defy rational analysis. This “something else” had never even been tried before, much less accomplished, and it reactivated memories of high school science and math classes I had loved. It also seized complete control of my imagination.

In the summer of 1969, the American space program was attempting to beat a deadline set by President John F. Kennedy in a celebrated 1961 address to Congress and the country: Put Americans on the surface of the moon, bring them safely back to Earth and get it done before the end of the 1960s.

That’s exactly what Apollo 11 did. It launched three American astronauts into space July 16, 1969, put two of them on the moon July 20 and brought all three back to Earth on July 24.

“Chasing the Moon,” a new three-part, six-hour documentary airing July 8, 9 and 10 as part of PBS’s much honored “American Experience” history series, chronicles the sweep and reach of the competition for leadership between the United States and the Soviet Union in the exploration of space. Award-winning documentarian Robert Stone wrote, produced and directed all three parts, along with a team of hundreds.

Part 1 opens with the Soviets’ 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite humans put into orbit around Earth. It includes accounts of early Soviet successes and early U.S. rockets exploding on launch pads with alarming regularity. Eventually, the Mercury project brought success to U.S. efforts. The episode ends with Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to Congress … and with his assassination in Dallas in 1963.

Part 2 tracks the space program through the development of extensive NASA facilities in Texas and Florida, the Gemini project and missions from the catastrophic Apollo 1 to the triumphant Apollo 8 Earthrise image of our home planet rising behind the desolate moon landscape. Part 3 is devoted almost entirely to the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I’ve seen all six hours of the documentary and felt profoundly moved, sometimes to my surprise, by the emotional force of many of its sequences, particularly in the second and third parts. The films are rich with visuals, some familiar and some fresh, and with affecting human moments. Special credit to the research team for finding and cataloguing the material, and to the editors and producers who managed to cut and craft their abundance of content into multiple and well-structured stories.

Major props to composer Gary Lionelli for creating and then juggling a musical score filled with themes that embodied and echoed the film’s multitude of ideas and feelings.

Looking back on my fascination with the space program, I know I was inspired by its fearless scientific spirit and its avowed dedication to keeping space free of weaponry. 

But I have to be honest and admit I also was amazed at how obviously impossible the whole enterprise was. Here’s what NASA was really saying it was going to do: 

Make a three-stage rocket nearly 400-feet high and fill the first stage with a million pounds of highly unstable explosive fuel. Make the second stage a small control capsule, and the third stage an even smaller capsule for landing on the moon. Attach both to the top of the explosive rocket.

Put three astronauts in the small capsule. Launch the whole thing from Florida using the fuel in the first stage. Get rid of the first stage.

Go around the Earth a few times with the other two stages, then leave Earth’s gravity, fly 240,000 miles away and get into an orbit around the moon. Circle the moon for a while. Move two of the astronauts from the control capsule to the landing capsule. Separate the two capsules.

Have the solo astronaut keep the small capsule in orbit around the moon. Have the other two astronauts fly their smaller capsule toward the moon’s surface. Fly over the surface and assess possible landing sites by looking out a window the size of the sole of a shoe.

Land the smaller capsule on the moon. Put one astronaut in a space suit. Have him crawl out of the capsule and down a ladder to the surface of the moon. Have him walk around for a while and take pictures. Send the second astronaut outside — leaving the smaller capsule empty — and have him walk around, too, and set up an American flag. At some point, both astronauts should go up the ladder and crawl back into the smaller capsule.

Assuming there’s any fuel left in the smaller capsule, use it to blast off the surface of the moon. Assuming they can figure out where the orbiting control capsule is, the two astronauts should fly their moon-landing capsule to it and reconnect with it in a way that’s absolutely airtight. At that point, the two astronauts should crawl back into the control capsule and rejoin the third guy. Get rid of the empty smaller capsule.  

Have the three astronauts fly the only remaining capsule 240,000 miles back to Earth. They should look for the North Pacific Ocean 900 miles from Hawaii. Locate a waiting U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and point the capsule down. At precisely the right moment during the fall, open three big folded-up parachutes attached to the capsule and splash into the ocean. 

The astronauts should wait for somebody from the aircraft carrier to come pick them up, along with their capsule.

Really? Really?

Yes. Really.