PBS Investigates How the USA Won the Space Race in 'Chasing the Moon'

Ed White, the first American to walk in space, on Gemini 4 mission. (Courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, June 1965)

A new documentary on the space program reinforces the fact that the NASA space program was a product of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union's early success with the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957, the U.S. government panicked, as though any evidence of USSR scientific accomplishment would be seen as a win for communism.

The PBS American Experience documentary series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI moon landing with "Chasing the Moon," a six-hour history of the space program airing over three nights Monday to Wednesday, July 8-10.

President John F. Kennedy made success in space a key part of his campaign platform in 1960 and, as the USSR continued to rack up firsts in space exploration, he decided to change the terms of engagement and proposed that the United States land a man on the moon and return him to Earth before the decade ended.

What followed was a financial investment that seems inconceivable today. Astronauts personally lobbied Congressmen to fund early missions and, even after we started having manned adventures in space, many Americans questioned whether the country should spend that much cash on what seemed at the time like a symbolic gesture against the USSR.

NASA fortunately had influential members of the news media fully in the tank for space travel. Both Walter Cronkite of CBS (beloved by NASA employees) and Jules Bergman of ABC (acknowledged as smart but considered a jerk by the team) covered space travel much like they were homer play-by-play announcers for a college football team. David Brinkley of NBC started out as a doubter, but everyone seemed to get caught up in the excitement as we got closer to the moon.

Director Robert Stone ("Oswald's Ghost," "Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst") was ten years old in 1969, and the moon landing made the same deep impression on him that it did on millions of young kids at the time. Too young to be worried about Vietnam or engaged with civil rights, he's part of the generation that remembers the Sixties for space travel.

Speaking of "missing the Sixties," NASA engineers and scientists were so absorbed in overcoming technical challenges and meeting a time deadline that they also didn't really notice the social upheavals around them. We've got a clip from the series that details the focus of many NASA employees.

    The series is especially strong as it addresses the failed Apollo 1 mission that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967. We hear the audio before and during the launchpad fire, learn about NASA's coverup of the gruesome details, experience powerful funeral footage from Arlington Cemetery and see the fallout for NASA as the program tried to go forward.

    Stone doesn't ignore the Nazi pasts of NASA senior managers like Werner von Braun, but don't look for an exposé of the post-WWII Operation Paperclip program that helped German scientists avoid the political scrutiny that most of their countrymen faced in the post-war years.

    If you enjoy the documentary, Robert Stone and his writer/research Alan Andres expand on the stories from the series in the excellent companion book "Chasing the Moon," out now from Ballantine Books.

    There's a flood of programming out there this month as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on July 16th. "Chasing the Moon" aims to give the story the context it deserves and makes a great introduction to one of the most incredible and unlikely achievements in United States history.

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