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Why the reality of the Apollo 11 mission is ‘much more complex’ than the mythology

It’s been 50 years since the groundbreaking moment the crew of the Apollo 11 mission landed a man on the moon for the first time. Now, a new six-hour documentary airing on PBS’ “American Experience” aims to develop a richer and deeper portrait of the political and cultural context in which the mission took place. William Brangham has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We look back now at a momentous event for humankind.

    William Brangham explores the Apollo 11 mission 50 years later.

  • Man:

    Eleven, 10, nine. Ignition sequence starts.

  • William Brangham:

    They're two of the most enduring and perhaps most romanticized images of man's first landing on the moon.

  • Man:

    We have a liftoff.

  • William Brangham:

    The liftoff of the rocket carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

  • Man:

    The Eagle has landed.

  • William Brangham:

    And, a few days later, Armstrong's first words as he stepped gingerly onto the moon.

  • Neil Armstrong:

    That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

  • William Brangham:

    A new six-hour documentary airing over three nights this week on PBS' "American Experience" aims to give a richer, deeper portrait of the political and cultural context that surrounded Apollo 11.

  • John F. Kennedy:

    This will be the greatest and most complex exploration in man's history.

  • William Brangham:

    "Chasing the Moon" fleshes out not just how the Cold War drove the space race between the U.S. and the Soviets, but examines some of the other tensions that affected the space program, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, anger over civil rights and poverty, and a public that was sometimes dubious of the huge price tag to get to the moon.

  • Robert Stone:

    I was 10 years old when we landed on the moon. I remember it vividly. It was a huge part of my childhood.

  • William Brangham:

    Filmmaker Robert Stone spent five years on this documentary. He dug up lots of rarely seen material, including that of President John F. Kennedy.

  • John F. Kennedy:

    This nation should commit itself.

  • Robert Stone:

    The prevailing myth that you do have in most treatments of this story is that Kennedy made the speech, Congress appropriates money, NASA goes to work, and we accomplish this great goal for all mankind. And the truth of it is so much more complex.

    Kennedy had serious misgivings about the moon landing almost immediately after he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

    His budget director is telling him, NASA's going to break the bank. We have got to figure a way out of this. What do we do?

  • William Brangham:

    Stone plays rarely heard audio of Kennedy's initial doubts.

  • John F. Kennedy:

    At least we ought to be clear.

    Otherwise, we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space. I think it's good. I think we ought to know about it. We're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about these fantastic expenditures, which wreck our budget.

  • William Brangham:

    "Chasing the Moon" chronicles the Cold War pressures on JFK, especially after the Soviet Union launch Sputnik, the first manmade satellite into space, that opened a new front in space exploration.

    But Stone also shows how the politics weren't always clear-cut.

  • Robert Stone:

    In 1963, severe criticism of Apollo began to emerge from a variety of quarters. So, Kennedy was concerned about this growing criticism and about his reelection prospect.

    And in that context, Kennedy returned to the idea of cooperating with the Soviet Union. Why not do it together, including joint missions to the moon?

  • John F. Kennedy:

    Why should the United States and the Soviet Union in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure?

  • William Brangham:

    The series also details how U.S. officials conveniently overlooked the Nazi past of Wernher von Braun, a key figure who developed the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 to the moon.

    During World War II, von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party, and he joined the S.S., Hitler's deadly paramilitary unit.

  • Question:

    Were you aware that there was a slave camp near the plant you worked in Germany?

  • Wernher Von Braun:

    Well, you're misinformed. The slave camp was about 400 miles from where I work.

  • George Alexander:

    He had to known that all those people he saw pushing heavy equipment were horribly abused. He would have had to have been blind, deaf and mute not to have known.

  • William Brangham:

    NASA's lack of gender and racial diversity also gets a closer look, including the story of Ed Dwight, whom the Kennedy administration actively promoted as the first black astronaut.

    But, ultimately, Dwight never went to space. And the series shows how key figures, like Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot who broke the speed of sound, rejected him.

  • Ed Dwight:

    Chuck Yeager, he was one of my heroes, was the first man to go through the speed of sound.

    Yeager had called in the entire instructor staff. And he announced that Washington is trying to cram the N-word down our throats. He said, Kennedy is using this to make racial equality. So, do not speak to him. Do not socialize with him, and, in six months, he will be gone.

  • William Brangham:

    During the third night of the series, Stone shows the growing public anticipation for the moon landing and the global celebration that followed. The film heralds the historic achievements of Apollo 11.

  • Robert Stone:

    One of the great things that came out of the space program — maybe the greatest thing — was the sense of optimism that it engendered, the sense that tomorrow will be better than today, the sense that we can overcome any problem.

    And that kind of spilled out even among people who were against the space program. And so the fact that we were all watching this at the same time created this sense of global unity and a sense of our common humanity.

  • William Brangham:

    "Chasing the Moon" isn't the only commemoration as the 50th anniversary approaches. There are multiple books and several documentaries out.

    One film, called "Apollo 11," uses almost entirely large-format archival film shot by cinematographers commissioned by the government. It's being shown in IMAX theaters and on CNN.

    And the moon race continues today. China landed on the moon earlier this year. NASA has its own plans to go back and then eventually to Mars. The Trump administration has pushed to land at the moon's south pole by 2024 and use it as a potential launching pad for Mars in the 2030s.

    And private efforts like Elon Musk's SpaceX aim to get there even sooner and potentially build a colony.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "Chasing the Moon" starts tonight on PBS' "American Experience," and it continues through Wednesday.

  • Correction:

    The original version of this story misstated the first name of filmmaker Robert Stone. We regret the error.

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