Race to the Moon

The latest web site I wrote for American Experience is for the film “Race to the Moon” about the Apollo 8 mission that was the first to send me out of earth’s orbit and around the moon. The film premieres on Halloween, Monday October 31, 2005 and is really good.

Here’s a photo taken by Bill Anders on that mission, December 1968 (Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center).

It’s a great story, and it’s been really fun getting immersed in Apollo history and trivia. I’m also really psyched about the return to the moon and learning about the Chinese space program.

Of the many books I read (or skimmed) for this project, two stand out.

The first is Flight: My Life in Mission Control by Chris Kraft. Kraft was the flight director (called “Flight”) for the Mercury missions and was promoted to Director of Flight Operations during Gemini. Flight ran the big room with the rows of desks all facing the big screen at one end. When he needed to know how much fuel was left, he got an answer from Retro immediately. When he needed to know how much oxygen was left, he got the answer from Surgeon immediately. He didn’t speak to the astronauts directly (with one exception) but he told Capcom (manned by an astronaut) what to tell them.

Mission Control, remember, was where at least half the flying was done. For the Mercury missions, the guys were not exactly “Spam in a can” but they weren’t exactly steering the thing, either. They were shot out of a cannon and had to manipulate some tiny rockets to make corrections. Similarly, for Apollo, you wouldn’t want to trust getting into Lunar orbit, 3 days and a quarter million miles away, based on eyeballing the destination. So Mission Control “flew” the spacecraft as much as the astronauts.

Kraft had a front seat to all of these missions and he tells a great story. What sets this apart from the other memoirs I looked at is both the scope–Mercury to Apollo, with a lot of information on the importance of Gemini–and the attitude. It’s clear from other books and interviews that everyone was half-scared of Kraft but also respected the heck out of him. And you can see why. He’s opinionated and when he’s right he presses the issue hard. Most of the time he was right.

He also criticizes some astronauts. He’s not overly fond of John Glenn (this seems mostly a clash of personalities), but he saves his vitriol for Scott Carpenter. Carpenter, according to Kraft, lacked skill, experience and discipline. He nearly ran out of fuel on this one Mercury flight because he was playing around and then blamed the close call on the engineers. Kraft made sure Carpenter never flew again.

The other side of Kraft is his warmth and generosity to his friends. Deke Slayton, the Mercury recruit who ran the astronaut’s office, got along famously with Kraft and their bond comes across. And to top it off, Kraft donated all the proceeds from his book to a scholarship fund for NASA employees’ children.

Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin is by far the best secondary source on the Apollo missions. The amount of research and number of interviews are apparent. The history is here, and filled out with silly or harrowing side anecdotes. Technical issues are explained clearly. Most of all, the astronauts come across as fully realized individuals, each with their own stories, perspectives on the space program, and voice intact. Chaikin says that he wanted the book to be a collaborative history of the astronauts and that’s how it comes across. If you’re going to read one book on Apollo (and it’s a big one), this is it.

Chaikin’s book is also the basis of From Earth to the Moon an HBO series now available on DVD. The same actors play the same individuals through all 12 hours, and each hour focuses on one Apollo mission. I watched them all over a period of a couple of weeks, and was really immersed in that world. The show is pretty historically accurate, and I noticed only a couple times where words were placed in another person’s mouth and I could see why, dramatically it was necessary and why it didn’t really matter (although, as a historian, it still ruffles my feathers a bit–I mean, the parts are already cast, the sets built).

The actors are uniformly good. There are some familiar names and faces, including Cary Elwes, Dave Foley, the doctor who lost his arm on ER, the guy from Wings, Tom Hanks and his wife, the mom from That 70s Show, and on and on. What’s great is how some of them are cast against type. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle plays Buzz Aldrin and he gets across Aldrin’s overthought anxiety and ambition. My favorite actor may have been the guy who played Frank Borman (or maybe it’s just because Borman has become one of my favorite astronauts), not a face I recognized except insofar as he looked just like Frank Borman! Good job, Central Casting! But he’s great, intense, patriotic, a husband who shows his love in the smallest gestures while at work.

The problem, though, is how do you differentiate Apollo 14 from Apollo 16? Anyone? Ferris? What happens is that, aside from the episodes on Apollo 1 and 8, the shows take on various issues or perspectives. One is told like that classic MASH where we see through the eyes of a documentary film unit. One shows the progression of science journalism to celebrity tabloid TV. Another barely shows the mission but tells the story of the astronauts’ wives. My favorite might be Apollo 14, which focuses on the comraderie of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean–they’re having as much fun as three guys in a spaceship can.

Overall, there’s only one dud. (The Apollo 13 ep isn’t great, but that’s because they didn’t want to compete with the movie, i.e. the movie fills in the story for that one.) The dud is a weird mishmash that intersperses the last moon mission with the making of a film by Georges Melies. The Melies film is funny and interesting if you get a chance to see it, but this last episode comes across as Hollywood in love with movies, Bob Loblaw…

Worth watching.

Also: The New Yorker recently reviewed a biography of Neil Armstrong here.

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