NatGeo marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing with ‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’

‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’ – When man left for another world

“Apollo: Missions to the Moon” premieres Sunday on National Geographic.

The Apollo moon missions were arguably the greatest human achievement of the 20th century, a product of technical innovation, can-do attitude and sheer courage that left the world in awe and created a generation of kids that wanted to fly in space.

Sadly, we haven’t been back since the last visit in 1972 but that hasn’t ended interest in exploring other worlds. And with the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk approaching, a National Geographic documentary recounting that landmark era figures to garner even more.

“Apollo: Missions to the Moon,” a two-hour special premiering Sunday, July 7, uses archival TV footage, NASA film, Mission Control audio, never-before-heard radio broadcasts and home movies to give an immersive, behind-the-scenes look at the Apollo program and what happened inside spacecrafts, Mission Control and living rooms across the country as Americans bore witness to these events via TV coverage.

Of course, the watershed event was Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon on Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, a transcendent moment in human history that had the world engrossed and emblazoned Armstrong’s words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the national consciousness.

“Apollo: Missions to the Moon” premieres Sunday on National Geographic.

Conversely, there was the “successful failure” of 1970’s Apollo 13, whose astronauts – Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert – faced mortal danger following an onboard explosion but managed to make it back alive thanks to the uber-heroic efforts of the crews on Earth and in space.

Though news reports at the time painted a grim picture of the peril the trio faced, Haise – who appears in the documentary – says he wasn’t convinced all was lost.

“I really never felt like we hit the edge of a cliff, that we’re about to go over,” Haise, now 85, told a recent gathering of journalists in Pasadena, Calif. “I had a lot of confidence in the brain trust we had on the ground. I’d worked through two previous missions, Apollo 8 and 11, and I knew how the process and the system worked. And I had figured a lot of people on the ground were probably getting less sleep than I was up there. And so I knew there were a great number of people that were working the problems that were identified that had to get solved to get us back.”

But he admits, he did have concerns about the spacecraft, which had to be shut down to conserve power, resulting in the command and service modules freezing up.

Of course, anyone who saw Ron Howard’s 1995 drama “Apollo 13” knows what happened: The spacecraft powered back up and functioned well enough to splash down in the Pacific, which Haise points out almost set a record.

“If you looked at one of the appendices and the overall Apollo Program report for entry performance,” he says, “I think Apollo 13 had the second-most-accurate splashdown of the program. I think Apollo 10 did better. So the gear came back to life and obviously performed beautifully.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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