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'Chasing the Moon' review: PBS' powerful history of the Apollo program  

Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong, left; Michael Collins,

Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong, left; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. Credit: NASA

DOCUMENTARY "Chasing the Moon"

WHEN | WHERE Monday-Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

The single most emotional moment of "Chasing the Moon" — a sweeping six-hour history of the Apollo program beginning Monday (WNET/13, 9 p.m.) — also happens to be the loudest. Three miles away from the Cape Kennedy launchpad the percussive boom arrives, knocking Walter Cronkite right out of the anchor chair. Someone is heard screaming. The talking heads stop talking because they can’t hear themselves and wouldn't know what to say if they did. 

Then comes the money shot: A camera beneath five massive Saturn V engines survives the flames, then the cascade of snow and ice and fog that shears off the sides of a rocket a third the size of the Empire State Building. Then something else moves, seemingly the Earth itself. 

This was the historic test launch of the Saturn V rocket, the so-called "all-up test" on Nov. 9, 1967, in which the entire rocket was to be sent aloft for the first time. If successful, the Saturn V would then carry three astronauts to the moon. If not, it would become an incalculable setback, and the worst since Jan. 27 of that year, when three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — were killed when their command module caught fire on the launchpad.

Would this test be the beginning of the beginning, or the end of the end? With TV's most trusted anchor dusting himself off a few miles away, could this be just one more disaster of the disastrous '60s?

Could be, though certainly wasn't. The rocket flies and anchors finally find something to say. Two men would be standing on the moon by 1969. 

The glory and achievement of this film by distinguished British-American filmmaker Robert Stone ("Radio Bikini," "Oswald's Ghost") is that it shows in considerable detail what happened, year by year, frame by frame. But "Chasing the Moon" also establishes why we need to care about the moon landing all over again — and why, 50 years later, some powerful feelings never really go away. 

Back then, in the midst of the gathering tragedy in Vietnam, the moon landing made anything seem possible. A few weeks after standing on the moon, Neil Armstrong — as taciturn and eloquent as any explorer in history — was asked how he "felt" after that "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong (who died in 2012) paused, then told a roomful of reporters that the Earth looked awfully small out there in the black emptiness, but it also "looked like an oasis, and an oasis worth saving." 

We certainly need to recapture those words — those feelings — right at this moment too. 

Stone combed 103 archives for the footage of this film, which runs entirely without narration, and the result — or rather the experience — is immersive. He eschews talking heads of his own, and instead relies on a few experts (including Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA), officials, journalists and former astronauts themselves (including Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot for Apollo 11) to tell us off-screen what this bounty of film really means. 

With "Chasing the Moon," Stone uncovers a parallel world to Vietnam. For most Americans in those years, both the war and space race unfolded on the TV in their living rooms. Both also had deep roots in the Cold War: Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, here recalls his father's resolve to beat Americans to the moon, and his final bitter defeat. . 

President John F. Kennedy invoked the race to the moon in his Rice University speech on Sept. 12, 1962, which yielded "we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

But his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, scorned the program as a waste of money and "stunt" to draw attention away from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Eloquence — and mostly politics — won the day. As Stone reveals, both the Gemini and follow-up Apollo programs were propelled by crafty PR initiatives. Also, by basing NASA facilities in the south (Florida, Alabama, Texas) JFK ensured the flow of money from Democrats needed to keep both programs alive. 

 JFK, meanwhile, had the unlikeliest of allies: A German genius, and former Nazi who conceivably could have been tried for war crimes. Wernher von Braun oversaw the V-2 rocket program at Peenemünde, and according to this account, either knew or orchestrated the program's slave labor force. The U.S. wanted him to establish the ICBM program, but Kennedy enlisted him to help get a man on the moon. Von Braun was an eager ally, and like JFK, a telegenic one as well as the most improbable star of "Chasing the Moon.".

Then, there is Ed Dwight, He was chosen by JFK to become the first African American astronaut trainee, and as "Chasing the Moon" makes clear, he may well have gone on to become one of the first men to step on the moon had Kennedy not been assassinated. Instead, Dwight was thwarted by racism, and he resigned from the Air Force in 1966. 

There is no trace of bitterness or regret in his recollections. Dwight, now 85, has moved on. (He's currently one of the country's foremost sculptors, with public art displays in more than a hundred cities.)

"Chasing the Moon" is stirring history and vitally important history, and a vivid reminder that our own history — even in triumph — can't quite extricate itself from the tragic past. 

 Except for that one brief shining moment on July 20, 1969, when it finally did. 

The next couple of weeks will be packed with specials marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, including one about Long Island's role. Here are a few:

"Apollo: Missions to the Moon" (Nat Geo, Sunday, July 7, 9 p.m.): This two-hour film promises Tom Jennings — longtime producer of the "In Their Own Words" and "The Lost Tapes" franchises — as narrator, and footage from the 12 crewed Gemini/Apollo missions.

"The Day We Walked on the Moon" (Smithsonian Channel, July 7, 9 p.m.): Personal stories from Michael Collins, third member of the Apollo 11 mission, and members of Mission Control (including flight director Gene Kranz) as well as children of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

"Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes" (History, July 14, 10 p.m.): This offers "newly uncovered footage, rare photographs and previously untelevised audio interviews."

"8 Days: To the Moon and Back" (WNET/13, July 17, 9 p.m.): Along with archival footage, CGI will recreate the first moon landing.

"NASA's Giant Leaps: Past and Future — Celebrating Apollo 50th as We Go Forward to the Moon" (Science Channel, July 19, 1 p.m.): This two-hour live telecast will originate from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center.

"Apollo: The Forgotten Films" (Discovery, July 20, 8 p.m.): Establishes the "incredible lengths an army of engineers, scientists and astronauts" would go to get men on the moon.

"Confessions from Space: Apollo" (Discovery, July 20, 10 p.m.): Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) relate their insights and stories.

“Moon Landing 50: Discovering Long Island’s Contribution” (WABC/7, July 20, 7 p.m.): This half-hour film will look at "the vital contribution made by thousands of Long Islanders who designed, built and perfected the Lunar Module at Grumman Aerospace in Bethpage." And it will also "take viewers inside the Grumman History Center for a look back in time to understand how the Lunar Module went from concept to the lunar surface."

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