Countdown To Launch of PBS' "Chasing The Moon" - July Blog

"Chasing The Moon" - A Film By Robert Stone

On July 8, 2019, PBS is proud to unveil Chasing The Moon - a film by Robert Stone, which reimagines the Space Race to the moon for a new generation; upending much of the conventional mythology surrounding the effort. The series recasts the Space Age as an inspiring period of scientific innovation, political calculation, media spectacle, visionary impulses, and personal drama. The series is a visual amalgam of lost or overlooked archival material, and features a wide cast of people who played key roles in the Space Race, such as astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders. Also appearing in this program are Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and leading Soviet rocket engineer; Poppy Northcutt, a 25-year old “mathematics whiz” who gained worldwide attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male bastion of NASA’s Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the Air Force pilot selected by the Kennedy administration to train as America’s first black astronaut.

To celebrate the premiere of Chasing The Moon, SCETV is releasing a series of educational blogs showcasing historical achievements in manned space flight during the "Space Race" to the moon. The April blog is the first in this series, and will continue until the premiere of Chasing The Moon in July. Here are the links to the AprilMay, and June blogs.

Out of the four educational blogs on Chasing The Moon, the blog for the month of July is arguably the most prodigious regarding achievements in space flight. The month of July features not only the first man to walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong, but also the genesis of international efforts in space travel. The launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was on July 15, 1975. The Apollo-Soyuz mission was both the first international flight in space, and the final flight of the Apollo program. In this flight, an Apollo command module linked up with Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19, and ceremoniously signaled the end of the "Space Race" with astronaut Tom Stafford shaking hands with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Both crews conducted scientific studies, and provided valuable engineering experience for future American-Russian joint space ventures, such as the Shuttle-Mir program, and later, the International Space Station.  The Apollo-Soyuz mission would also be the one and only space flight for Mercury veteran Donald K. "Deke" Slayton. Slayton, originally slated to fly following John Glenn's historic Friendship 7 flight, was ultimately grounded by NASA medical staff for having an irregular heartbeat. 

Apollo 11 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins would make the journey to the moon, to make history as the first time human beings would ever set foot on another world.  Four days later on July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin made the moon landing on board the lunar module Eagle, while Michael Collins stayed by himself in lunar orbit, on board the command module Columbia. Millions of people all over the globe would tune in on either television or radio to witness Armstrong take that first step on the lunar surface. For thousands of years, humans have looked up into the skies to view Earth's closest celestial neighbor, wondering what it must be like up there - and astronaut Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta, Ohio, would be the first man to do it. The moon landing would not have been made possible were it not for the thousands of hard working men and women all over the U.S., along with the lessons learned from Mercury, Gemini, and the early days of the Apollo program. If the Apollo 1 astronauts - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee - had been alive to see this accomplishment of human history and ingenuity, they would have been proud. 

As for astronaut Michael Collins, Apollo 11 was not his only spaceflight. Previously, on July 18, 1966, Collins accompanied John Young on board Gemini 10. Gemini 10 was the first time an Agena target vehicle's rocket was fired to climb to a higher altitude in space, reaching a distance of 412 nautical miles from earth. It was on this mission where Collins earned an achievement of his own - Gemini 10 rendezvoused with Gemini 8's derelict Agena vehicle, and he became the first man to meet up with another spacecraft, albeit an unmanned one, in orbit. Like Gene Cernan on Gemini 9, Collins also faced similar problems with Isaac Newton's third law of motion during his second extra-vehicular activity (EVA) on Gemini 10. Collins completed a mission task by retrieving a micro-meteorite collector from the side of the spacecraft, but faced difficulties in the process. 

Rewinding back to Project Mercury, July 21, 1961, was the launch of the second Mercury mission: Liberty Bell 7, piloted by astronaut Gus Grissom. This second sub-orbital mission sought to prove that Alan Shepard's previous flight was no fluke, and ultimately the flight was a success. Unfortunately for Grissom, a few moments after splashdown, the hatch, held together with explosive bolts, prematurely blew, causing the spacecraft to flood with water and sink to the ocean. Grissom had earned the unfair reputation of being the astronaut who lost his capsule. Grissom did not let this mantra bother him, for when he took charge of the first manned Gemini flight, Gemini 3, he nick-named his spacecraft the "Unsinkable Molly Brown," after the famous survivor from the Titanic disaster. Giving his spacecraft that name was a way to thumb his nose, so to speak, at nay-sayers. NASA officials were not amused by this, but the name stuck. Thankfully, Liberty Bell 7 was eventually recovered in 1999, and is currently on display at the Cosmosphere, in Hutchinson, Kansas. 

Conceived in 1969, Skylab was America's first orbital space station. Launched on May 14, 1973, its purpose was to achieve a lasting presence in space. However, severe damage occurred during launch when one of its two solar panels was torn off, causing the temperature on the station to rise to 52 degrees C. Because the station was designed to face the sun, extensive repairs were required. On May 25, 1973, astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph P. Kerwin were dispatched to serve as crew on Skylab's first manned mission, designated Skylab 2. The mission lasted four weeks, during which experiments were conducted, including solar astronomy, medical studies and extra-vehicular activites. Skylab 3 was launched on July 28, 1973 with Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma and Owen Garriott on board. This mission lasted 59 days, during which time additional repairs and experiments were carried out. The final mission, Skylab 4, lasted 84 days. Crew members were Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue and Edward G. Gibson. In addition to conducting experiments, the astronauts observed the Comet Konoutek and performed three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities). Skylab orbited Earth more than 2,476 times over its 171 days of service. Each of its missions set a record for the time astronauts spent in space.

Although NASA hoped for Skylab to remain in orbit for ten years, it became clear by 1977 that it could not maintain a stable orbit. Preparations were made to return the station to Earth in an unpopulated area approximately 810 miles south-southeast of Cape Town, South Africa. The debris reached Earth on July 11, 1979 over the Indian Ocean and parts of Austrailia. The Skylab mission is considered essential to the development of the International Space Station, which was begun almost 20 years after Skylab's return. 

Don't forget to tune in to PBS for Robert Stone's Chasing The Moon on July 8, 2019!