This year makes the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, so naturally we’re seeing a slew of films and TV programs celebrating that milestone, like last year’s biopic. The latest is a new documentary, , making its debut on the National Geographic Channel. Ars had the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Tom Jennings and former NASA engineer Frances “Poppy” Northcutt back in June to talk about the making of the documentary, and revisit this pivotal moment in space history.
NASA’s Apollo space program is well-traveled ground in popular media, so Jennings faced quite the challenge in coming up with a fresh take. Fortunately, this is also one of the most well-documented periods in 20th century history. The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director pieced together his documentary using nothing but hundreds of hours of archival TV footage, radio broadcasts, film and audio from NASA Mission Control, black-box recordings from Apollo capsules—even the occasional home movie. There are no narrators or talking heads, and the end result provides a much more immersive experience for the viewer than your typical science documentary.
Jennings has used this approach before to produce documentaries about the late Princess Diana and the tragedy of the space shuttle . “Instead of someone telling you what is was like, I wanted to try and create something that’s almost like a motion picture, but everything is real,” he said. “I think that audiences, if they just give it a minute, get drawn in, in a way they might not in a more traditional documentary. For people who lived through it, it’s a way to re-experience it, and for those who aren’t old enough to remember, it’s as close as we can get to experiencing it for the first time.”
The documentary covers most of the Apollo missions. It follows a roughly chronological timeline, beginning with the early days of the space program, mostly skipping over, or briefly summarizing, Apollo missions 2-7, 9-10, 12, and 14-17, before closing with some foreshadowing of the then-nascent space shuttle program. The focus is understandably on the most well-known big moments in US space history: Apollo 8 and the first manned mission to leave Earth and orbit the moon; the first manned lunar landing with Apollo 11; and the nail-biting drama of Apollo 13, forever immortalized in the 1995 film starring Tom Hanks.
In one especially moving moment, we see astronaut Gus Grissom‘s wife, Betty, responding to a question about her feelings on her husband going into space: “How would you feel if your wife were going into space?” Grissom, of course, was supposed to be part of the Apollo 1 crew, but famously perished along with two other astronauts (Ed White and Roger Chaffee) in a cabin fire doing a pre-launch test of the Apollo 1 Command Module in January 1967. The documentary includes snippets of their final words on the surviving black box audio: “Flames! We’re burning up!” (followed by a foreboding silence).
Among the many people featured is Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in Apollo Mission Control. She helped calculate the return trajectories for the Apollo 8 mission, among other achievements, and was part of the team working round-the-clock to bring the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 home safely.
Northcutt recalled finding the place initially intimidating, but not because she was the only woman. It was the sharp contrast between her quiet, humble office and the noisy, intense environment of Mission Control. Per Northcutt, it was an era dominated more by computers and machines than men. “Going from Mercury to Apollo was orders of magnitude more complex, in terms of the mathematics involved,” she said. With the former, the human computers could rely on slide rules and desk calculators for their back-of-the-envelope calculations. “But when you’re talking about leaving the Earth, you cannot do that with a simple computer,” she said. “Apollo represented the first real use of what we now call Big Data.”
“Going from Mercury to Apollo was orders of magnitude more complex.”
“It certainly was not was expected of me,” Northcutt said of her engineering career. “My parents sent me to college expecting I would get married.” Instead, her high aptitude in mathematics yielded a job offer at a contractor called TRW (now part of Northrup Grumman), and she found herself working on developing computer programs for NASA’s space program. “I was in the right place at the right time and I took advantage of it,” she said. And while her father was proud of her achievements, especially when Northcutt was featured in a national TRW advertisement, he told her that “the only thing that could make him prouder was if he saw my wedding announcement in the local Dayton paper.”
“I’m just sad there aren’t more women now,” said Northcutt, noting that while 30 percent of computer science staff were women in the late 1950s and early 1960s, today that has dropped to just 18 percent. The culprit? “Hostile work place,” she said. “The internet has spawned this really ugly thing for women. Yes, I experienced sex discrimination [at NASA], but it was not anonymous. I knew at least who the hell it was being a pig.” That’s often not the case in today’s social media-dominated world, where women frequently receive abusive comments, including threats of rape or death, merely for daring to exist in a traditionally male-dominated space. (Needless to say, you won’t find Northcutt—now a Texas-based attorney—on Twitter: “I think it’s a sewer.”)
In addition to the major broadcast networks and NASA’s own extensive archives, Jennings found a treasure trove of archival material from local news stations and media outlets. He went to smaller TV stations in Cleveland, Ohio, and central and south Florida, for instance, asking for any raw footage from that era that might have been preserved. “Oftentimes, [local] reporters are much more colloquial and have longer conversations with people,” he said. “They weren’t limited to a minute and ten seconds for a story, they would use four or five minutes.” And if the raw tapes were preserved—much was lost, alas—there could be hours of priceless archival footage there.
“You have to keep searching and searching until you find enough material to cover the story that you need to tell,” said Jennings. “And then you fill in the mortar between the [narrative] bricks with the unique stuff that really stands out, so that—especially in an anniversary year—we can say ours is a bit different than everyone else’s.”
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APOLLO: Missions to the Moon