If you ever wondered what it was like to live through a time of historic challenge, wonder no more. This is it. The people of the Earth are locked in an epic battle for survival against, well, themselves. Can they pull it together in time? Who knows! Meanwhile, let’s take a look back at the Apollo 11 Moon landing for a refresher course on tackling big jobs of existential import.
Apollo 11: (Many) Missions to the Moon
The US is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing in July, so there are plenty of opportunities to relive the moment when the first human stepped on a surface other than the Earth — and every moment leading up to that moment, too.
One of those opportunities is the new National Geographic Documentary Films’ Apollo: Missions to the Moon, a two hour look-back at the entire series of events leading up to the Moon landing.
With the global experience of the original, televised Moon landing in mind, National Geographic Channel is unspooling the film on Sunday, July 7 in 172 countries and 43 languages, as a kickoff to its Space Week fest.
The Apollo Missions: A Primer For The Present
Instead of leaning on voices from the present to explain how things went down, Apollo: Missions to the Moon creates a real-time experience by deploying a massive trove of archival footage.
That circles back around to the climate challenge we’re facing today, so when the chance came up to talk about Apollo: Missions to the Moon with director Tom Jennings and former NASA astronaut and Columbia University professor Mike Massimino a couple of weeks ago, CleanTechnica took it. Here’s our conversation (edited for clarity and flow):
CleanTechnica: What drew you to this project?
Jennings: The network was hoping to do something special for Moon landing anniversary, and I was old enough to remember Apollo 8 as a little boy. I was trying to recapture that experience for those who either forgot or who weren’t old enough.
CleanTechnica: How would you frame that experience in terms of the social upheavals of the 1960s?
Jennings: I grew up in Cleveland. I don’t remember the chaos but I remember the assassinations. Just being so young, you kind of live in a bubble. The space program was part of that bubble. You can kind of get lost in it.
I remember Apollo 8. It was bitter cold in Cleveland that night. I was looking up at the moon, thinking that I’ve got to get back to the living room, and trying to figure out how do they do this. It was a time of magic for people who were very young.
CleanTechnica: How do the Apollo missions resonate today?
Massimino: There was the technical challenge of getting to the Moon, and the engineering part of it. National pride and competition were motivations but there was also a science aspect.
In later missions there was more focus on science and geology, and that’s the reason we go now. I enjoyed servicing the Hubble telescope but you have to have a real reason to do that. There’s always that science element to it, a combination of hard engineering and figuring things out.
CleanTechnica: How does space science relate to challenges here on Earth?
Massimino: We’re not going to find a better place to live because, well, we’re not. A goal of the space program is to fix these problems. The things we do in space to study the planet directly — the terrain, the oceans — we can study from that perch really well. We gain an understanding of our planet from being able to observe where are things improving.
The International Space Station is developing new materials and life support systems. For example, clean water is an issue in space. Being able to recycle water, and [obtain food]; you’re in a remote environment up there.
Jennings: One thing I learned was how much NASA studies our planet. They look down at earth as much as they look out into the heavens.
[For the Apollo missions] they gathered the best and brightest, and the number of people involved: 400,000 people and 20,000 companies as contractors. One thing we can learn is that they had a goal, and they set out to accomplish it. They brought together every possible resource to make it happen.
With this being 50th anniversary there will be a lot of films out, but it is unique. It’s told in real time with footage from the time, and we tell the complete story, not just zeroing in on the Moon landing. It gives context to the Moon landing, which would not have occurred without everything done prior to 1969.
It’s both a primer and a time machine.
A Blueprint For Climate Action
Without giving anything away about Apollo: Missions to the Moon (go on, see for yourself!), let’s take a look at one moment that lit the space fuse.
The race to space was actually not the first matter of urgent national need that President Kennedy described to Congress. It wasn’t the second, fourth, or fifth either. Or sixth.
That thing about outer space came in dead last at number nine, but it came in with a roar.
The President described every urgent need from one through eight in terms of affirming the nation’s “role of leader in freedom’s cause.” He brought all of those threads together in his vision for a US response to Russian achievements in space.
Kennedy argued that “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,” the US must capture the imagination of people around the world (well, he said “men” but he probably meant people), and space was the way to do it.
He also laid out a detailed list of housekeeping rules to make it clear that the commitment to space would require all hands on deck:
Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.
…in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.
The Inclusion Factor
There’s that “man” thing again!
Inclusion was the gaping hole in the Apollo missions. Opportunities for women and people of color to contribute to the missions were limited, and those contributions that were contributed were swept aside by a singular focus on the astronauts who manned (because that’s what they did) the cockpits.
To be fair, the names of practically all of the behind-the-curtain players don’t instantly spring to mind when the topic of the Apollo missions comes up. Ask anyone on the street to name a non-astronaut engineer who played an instrumental role in the Apollo missions, then run around the block a few times while they check Wikipedia.
Still, it’s important to recognize that today’s field of “best and brightest” has a huge leg up on the resources available in the 1960’s.
The stories are being recovered, the ranks of US astronauts have expanded, and as NASA winds up a three-year diversity and inclusion initiative, at least one other key federal agency in space exploration — the US Department of Energy — is still busy taking down barriers to sexuality inclusion as well as racial and gender diversity.
All of the pieces are in place for an Apollo-style national commitment to climate action.
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Image (screenshot): Via National Geographic YouTube.