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PBS Documentary ‘Chasing the Moon’ Casts New Light On Space Race

In 1969, 10-year-old Robert Stone was living in England when he was mesmerized by Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Six months after seeing it, his mother woke him in the middle of the night on July 20, 1969, to witness Apollo 11’s landing and man’s first steps on the moon.

“We were watching on this little black and white television that was in front of a big window. I remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon, and I looked out the window and there was the moon rising above.  It was like the television turned into a giant telescope, which blew my mind as a 10-year-old boy,” Stone said.

Stone described the two events as a “one-two punch that ignited a fire in his mind” that stayed with him his whole life. Seeing them led to his interest in space and an eventual career as an award-winning documentary filmmaker.  Stone combines those two passions in his three-part film “Chasing the Moon” for the PBS series “American Experience.”

[filmmaker Robert Stone/ photo/Robert Stone Productions]

Stone said while there have been many fine films that have told the space race story, he wanted to approach it from a different angle.

“Most of them focus on the astronaut experience and exclusively use footage from the NASA collection.  I felt what I wanted to see was a movie that would capture what it was like to be living at a time when we were sending humans beyond the earth and off into another world. I wanted to show what it was like to grow up at that time when we first did it. Also our archival footage search went way beyond the NASA collection. I think we sourced nearly a hundred different archives in making this film,” he said.

“Chasing the Moon” has no narrator, like his previous documentaries “Radio Bikini” (1987), “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst” (2004) and “Oswald’s Ghost” (2007).

“I find a narrator interferes with the emotional connection of audience to a film, because it comes across too much like a lecture.  One of the innovations we did with this film is that there was audio-only interviews. The story is so visual, so there are no talking heads. I also wanted the film to be timeless. I wanted it to be grounded in the moment and fully immersive. Everyone is young and doing the most exciting things in their lives, so you don’t have this see-saw back and forth between past and present. It unfolds like it is happening for the first time, even though you know ultimately they will get to the moon, there’s a kind of suspension of disbelief about whether they would actually make it,”  Stone said.

[ President John F. Kennedy (with sunglasses) is briefed by NASA officials at the Saturn rocket Complex 37, Cape Canaveral, Florida/photo courtesy John F Kennedy Presidential Libray and Museum]

One of the audio-only interviews was a conversation with Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev. The younger Khrushchev shared stories about his father’s reluctance to invest heavily in the Russian space program, feeling the money would be better spent on improving domestic conditions of his country, and what made him change his mind.

“He (Khrushchev) wasn’t a big fan of the space race and neither was President (John) Kennedy, but he was so overwhelmed by the reaction in the West to early Soviet space successes, particularly after Sputnik, that he wanted more. He kept urging his engineers to do more “space spectaculars,” which they did, the first man in space, the first woman, the first orbital mission. The Russians were just way ahead of us, but it wasn’t really a coordinated effort to achieve anything. They just wanted to achieve these spectacular goals which would get world attention, but it wasn’t going anywhere towards anything,” Stone said.

When it came to being the first to reach the lunar surface, “Chasing the Moon” revealed there was actually just one entry in the race.

“(Nikita) Khrushchev really had no plans for a moon mission. He wasn’t racing the United States, that really only started after Khrushchev was overthrown. We didn’t know it, but in those early years, we were really racing against ourselves,” Stone said.

“Chasing the Moon” examines the space race from a variety of angles, ranging from domestic opposition to the program to how the news media covered the event to how a woman and an African-American man made their way into NASA’s nearly all white-male bastion. The film also examines something NASA did their best to keep hidden, the behind-the-scenes conflicts that arose among the astronauts, most notably a rivalry between two of the program’s most famous men.

[ Left to right, Neil Armstrong, commander: Michael Collins, command module pilot and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot/photo courtesy NASA]

“When the Apollo 11 crew was selected and it was determined that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were going to be the first  people on the moon, it was not clear who was going to the first person to step on the moon. Buzz thought it was going to him, because generally the lunar module pilot, which he was, would be the first out the door. As it turned out, Neil Armstrong was selected to be the first man out.  For the rest of his life, Aldrin was always introduced as ‘the second man to walk on the moon,’” Stone said.

[NASA and Manned Spacecraft Center officials join flight controllers to celebrate successful conclusion of Apollo 11/photo courtesy NASA]

Stone hopes the generation of “Chasing the Moon” viewers who either weren’t old enough to remember to the space race or weren’t yet born when it happened take something in particular from the documentary.

“We’re a living at a time when young people feel the future will not be as good as the past or the present, that we are kind of on a downhill slope. One of the great things about the Apollo project was that it was so infused with enthusiasm and optimism about the future. It showed that almost any technological problem we have, if you throw enough time and resources at it you can solve it. It gave people a great sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. Having a national goal and setting a timeline and applying the resources has a kind of ripple effect through the culture, I think it is really positive.  I hope it inspires us to do something bold and audacious again. It doesn’t have to be going to Mars or the moon, it could be something else,” Stone said.

watch the trailer for "Chasing the Moon"


“Chasing the Moon” airs on WVIZ ideastream July 8-10 at 9 p.m.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.