THE DOCUSERIES "1969"
WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Tuesday, ABC/7
WHAT IT'S ABOUT ABC will begin its new series about the fraught year of 1969 on the moon, and that historic summer when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins traveled 238,900 miles to a rock and transfixed the world. This hour features a number of interviews, including with Charles Duke, lunar module pilot for Apollo 16, and the 10th and youngest person to walk on the moon (he was 36 during the 1972 landing); and Collins, who was command module pilot for Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo Lunar Module, named Eagle, landed on the surface, as billions of people on Earth watched. Ironically, Collins orbiting in the command module, Columbia, recalls that he could see nothing of history taking place below. Armstrong, the first to step on the lunar surface, died in 2012; Aldrin, 89, lives in Florida.
Future episodes of "1969" will look at the Manson murders, Woodstock, black activists, the Stonewall uprising and much more.
MY SAY ABC's new six-parter begins with the moon which seems like the perfect starting point. It was quiet up there on July 20, 1969, and noisy back here, except for one hushed moment, when the entire world took a deep breath as one astronaut made that small step for man and giant leap for mankind.
But what about women? The male-centric story leading up to this historic step and the accompanying male-centric quote are well-known, and have been told many times, in books and on film. But the challenge for any film on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing -- and you can be assured of a few more this year -- is to tell the whole story. This one makes an honorable effort and "honorable" just may be what counts most.
In fact, the honorable attempt is now, officially, unavoidable along with the part of the story that's been missing most of these past 50 years. The 2016 publication of “Hidden Figures,” about NASA engineers Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, and the Oscar-nominated film of the same name has made certain of that.
Both mathematicians and engineers responsible for re-entry calculations and much else, Jackson, who died in 2005 and Vaughan (in 2008) are barely mentioned here. Johnson, the pioneer computer programmer who calculated orbital mechanics, does get a few on-screen moments as a reminder that women, and black women, played such a vital role in the moon landing. She'll turn 101 in August, and appears alongside her daughter, Joylette Hylick, who wonders what her mom would have said to anyone who questioned her calculations. Johnson scoffs: “Tough.”
Christine Darden, 76, the other “hidden figure” and so-called “human computer” of NASA, is interviewed and so Margaret Hamilton, 82, the systems engineer who developed the onboard flight software for the Apollo missions. She recalls that someone once asked her “how can you leave your daughter at home? And I said 'you do what's right for you and I'll do what's right for me.' ”
It's remarkable that it took 50 years for these women to get their TV due. A NASA-produced 40th anniversary documentary, “The Conquest of the Moon,” never mentions them, but it was hardly alone. According to IMDB, the only mention Johnson ever got on TV was during the 2017 Oscars, where she appeared as a presenter.
But this ABC film is an essential and long overdue reminder that efforts as vast and as complicated as the moon shot were a team effort, and this particular team was also comprised of some brilliant and accomplished women.
It's a further reminder that for one brief shining moment, at the midpoint of a bitterly divisive year, the country and world looked to the sky. As Collins recalled, “everywhere we went we got, 'we did it!' as in 'we -- humankind.' ”
Alas, next week's episode makes a hard landing back to Earth. That one will be about Chappaquiddick.
BOTTOM LINE On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the women of NASA are getting their due. About time, wouldn't you say?