The Monroe County Library System has partnered with WXXI to show special screenings of the American Experience documentary, “Chasing the Moon” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Below is a list of MCLS member libraries that will be screening portions of the documentary and a brief description of each part.
Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County- Wednesday, July 10 12:00-2:00 PM- Screening: The Early Days & Astronauts and Politics
Charlotte Branch Library- Wednesday, July 3 & Saturday, July 6- Screening: The Giant Leap
Phillis Wheatley Community Library- Wednesday, July 17 5:30 PM- Screening Astronauts & Politics
Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County- Wednesday, July 17 12:00-2:00 PM- Screening: This is a test program & Saving 1968
Penfield Public Library – Saturday, July 20 10:30-11:30- Screening: The Giant Leap
Phillis Wheatley Community Library- Saturday, July 20 12:00 PM- Screening: Saving 1968
The Early Days
“The next president of the United States, on his shoulders will rest burdens heavier than rested on the shoulders of any president since the time of Lincoln.” The space race was just beginning when Senator John F. Kennedy delivered his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The Soviets are beating the Americans in space, in many of the big firsts of space exploration so far: one of the biggest blows to American prestige is when Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, becomes the first man in space. The tension of the space race continues to escalate, three years later, as Kennedy begins to question whether it is worth the dollars and time. Racism, poverty, the war in Vietnam, are at the forefront of the nation’s social dilemmas and justifying the investment in space exploration is no small feat. As the early days of the space race gain momentum, the role of the press becomes even more important to make NASA’s work relevant in the eyes of the American people. Science and politics go hand in hand now. Cocoa Beach becomes a place of science, but also one of fun and excitement, overrun by press from all over the world. TV personalities like Walter Cronkite become “agents” for NASA, bringing the drama and tension alive in people’s living rooms. Astronauts are beginning to become real heroes for people and we see how allowing the press to freely report on the launches and missions, creates a buzz and interest in the space program that the American people want to watch and experience more and more.
Astronauts and Politics
The clip opens with the astronaut, Virgil Grissom’s return from the Liberty Bell 7 Mission, in 1961. Astronauts have become a new kind of celebrity; real-life heroes that the American people want to know more and more about. We see what being an astronaut’s wife entails and the challenges they face, having their families scrutinized by the press and public. Air Force Pilot Ed Dwight is selected by the Kennedy administration to train as the first African American astronaut. He and the other astronauts are put through various kinds of physical and psychological training and tests to ensure they could endure whatever going into space would throw at them. When the next group of fourteen new astronauts is announced, Dwight would not be among them. President Kennedy travels to Huntsville, Alabama in 1962 to meet with Wernher von Braun. Later that year the President travels to Houston, TX, and on September 12, buoyed by the real possibilities of the space program, delivers one of his most famous speeches at Rice University: “We choose to go to the moon.” Now von Braun and the team at NASA have to figure out how to get to the moon. The slow rate of progress in testing and building the new rocket by the fall of 1963, however, starts to raise doubts on whether the U.S. could reach the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy now resolves to work with the Soviet Union in making this possible, advocating that it is no longer about one nation’s ability, but about the ability of mankind.
This is a test program
The purpose of the Gemini missions was to demonstrate Earth-orbital rendezvous, a critical step in the ultimate mission to the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have starring roles in some of these early missions and their work proves to be key to NASA’s future missions. Aldrin uses his experience as a scuba diver to encourage training astronauts using neutral buoyancy. This becomes a major advancement in enabling astronauts to carry out physical tasks in space. During the Gemini 8 mission, Armstrong proves to be an expert pilot and leader when he successfully returns to Earth, along with crewmate Jim Lovell, after experiencing the first “emergency” in space. The tragedy of the Apollo 1 mission unfolds and reminds all involved about the dangerous nature of the work they are doing and the costs of embarking on the treacherous journey to the moon. The incident instigates a major review and investigation into what went wrong and informs the construction of a new shuttle that would carry astronauts in future Apollo missions.
People working in the space program “missed the 60s” and the social turmoil that was ravaging the country at the time. After the tragic Apollo 1 fire, confidence in NASA is shaken. More than ever, NASA needs the first unmanned Saturn V rocket launch to succeed and prove to the country that the space program is still worth supporting. Intelligence reports that the Soviets are also making major attempts to get to the moon first accelerates the schedule for the Apollo 8 mission. Poppy Northcutt, the first woman in an operational role in mission control, gets a lot of attention from press. The 25-year-old mathematics whiz proves herself in the all-male environment and uses her position to promote the idea that women are capable of technical scientific work. On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launches. NASA, the astronauts’ families, and rest of the nation follow the Christmas mission that successfully circumnavigates the Moon, and as one American fan writes to astronaut Frank Borman afterwards, “saves 1968.”
The Giant Leap
In mid-July 1969, crowds flooded Cocoa Beach in anticipation of the historic launch. Camped out along the beach and gathered in cars, spectators endured the blistering heat in anticipation of the impending launch. At the same time, civil rights leader Robert Abernathy led a peaceful protest, criticizing the priorities of the federal government. Then head of NASA Thomas Pain received them warmly, noting, “We would like to see you hitch your wagons to our rockets” in making their concerns heard by a national audience. Pain invited Abernathy to the launch site, and the protesters joined the thousands of Americans gathered to see the Saturn V launch Apollo 11 into the atmosphere. On July 20, 1969, the biggest television audience in world history tuned in to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon’s surface. The relationship between the press, Hollywood, and NASA reached its zenith as broadcasters produced the first truly global live television experience of the landing. CBS News Director Joel Banow recounts how CBS News even hired a Hollywood special effects wiz to create simulations of the journey so that they would have something to televise until Armstrong and Aldrin were actually on the moon. Though these first stages of the landing couldn’t be seen live on earth, the Apollo 11 crew proceeded with the difficult undocking and landing maneuvers that should place them safely on the lunar surface. Audiences watched simulations and listened to audio coverage with baited breath as Armstrong delicately maneuvered the lunar module only to discover the landing site was in fact a football-field sized crater, forcing Armstrong to hover the craft and look for a new site with a mere thirty seconds of fuel. At last, audiences heard the triumphant words, “the Eagle has landed.” Mission control responded, “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue – we’re breathing again.”
These screenings are sponsored in partnership with WXXI and the Monroe County Library System. Major funding provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding provided by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, The Documentary Investment Group- Ira & Diana Riklis. Local Support provided by Village at Unity, RMSC- Strasenberg Planetarium and Cobblestone Capital Advisors.