Countdown To Launch of PBS' "Chasing The Moon" - June 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 April and May blogs.

The month of June is focused primarily on achievements during NASA's Project Gemini - America's second manned space program. Between 1965 and 1966, Project Gemini was the bridge between Project Mercury, and the Apollo program; where astronauts and engineers alike would master the skills needed to make trips to the moon possible. While Project Mercury proved man can survive in space, Gemini's goal was to prove that man could work in space. If tasks such as rendezvous, docking, extra-vehicular activity (E.V.A.), or long duration spaceflight could not be performed, a trip to the moon would be impossible. NASA needed more astronauts for Gemini, and thus, "The New Nine" were selected to join the ranks of the Astronaut Corps. Some of the astronauts in this group may sound familiar: James McDivitt, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Thomas Stafford, and Ed White. Others in this group, such as Pete Conrad, John Young, and of course, Neil Armstrong, would later become moon walkers. 

Starting with June 3, 1965, astronauts Ed White and Jim McDivitt were launched into space aboard Gemini 4. Gemini 4 is one of NASA's most historic spaceflights, for that mission is when Ed White made America's first "space-walk." Although Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first man to ever "walk" in space in March, 1965, Ed White stayed out in space for twice as long as Leonov. White was tethered to the spacecraft, and used a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit, also known as a "zip gun" to move around in space. The E.V.A. would be the highlight of this mission, and McDivitt's iconic photographs of the space-walk were published worldwide. 

A year later, on June 3, 1966, Gemini 9 was launched into space, crewed by astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan. Gemini 9's series of E.V.A.s were to be much more demanding than Ed White's space-walk on Gemini 4. While Ed White floated in space for about twenty minutes, Gemini 9's mission plans called for Gene Cernan to maneuver behind the spacecraft, and test an experimental rocket pack called the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Cernan's E.V.A. proved to be unsuccessful, since he spent the space-walk wrestling with physics. Whenever Cernan tried to perform any simple task, his body would turn and start to float away from the spacecraft; proof of Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion - "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." By the time Cernan reached the rocket pack, he was not only physically exhausted, but his visor was completely fogged, and his suit had 100% humidity. The E.V.A. was cut short, and Cernan never got to test the pack. When talking about Gemini 9, Cernan recalls having lost thirteen pounds as a result of that one E.V.A., which lasted over two hours. Astronauts Michael Collins on Gemini 10, and Dick Gordon on Gemini 11 would encounter similar problems during their respective E.V.A.s. It almost seemed as if working in space could not be done, until Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin took a completely different approach to space-walks, by having a series of handles, foot-holds, and strapping installed around the spacecraft to anchor the astronaut down while working. Another fun fact: it is thanks to Buzz Aldrin that astronauts have used swimming pools to train for E.V.A.s ever since! 

The last significant date for the month of June is June 16. On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to ever fly in space.  She also holds the honor of being the first civilian to fly in space, for she was only honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force, in order to join the Cosmonaut Corps. Vostok 6 would be Tereshkova's only flight. It would be twenty years before the U.S. would see its first woman astronaut, with Sally Ride aboard space shuttle Challenger, on mission STS-7, in June, 1983. 

Stay tuned for the final blog celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's historic moon landing!