I’ve always been a sucker for space.

Six months old when the Soviets launched Sputnik (feel free to do the math), I spent a chunk of my childhood watching the U.S. try to beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon. I held my breath during Gemini and Apollo launches, cheered every splashdown, and watched with my whole family the televised event that briefly united the planet 50 years ago this month.

In the absence of a DVR, I recorded the audio from CBS’s Apollo 11 broadcast on July 20, 1969, on the reel-to-reel tape recorder I’d gotten for my birthday, capturing Neil Armstrong’s first words after hitting the moon surface and a visiting relative’s caustic running commentary with about equal fidelity.

The excitement of that moment never really went away. Of the experiences I’ve had while writing about television, I may have geeked out the most about occasionally being in the same room with astronauts and getting to interview people like Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman in space.

I’d seen Ryan Gosling play Armstrong in First Man. I marveled in the theater at the digital transformation of the found footage in director Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11, which made its TV premiere last month on CNN (a repeat runs 9 p.m. July 20). And if I didn’t already own it on DVD, I’d be recording all 12 episodes of HBO’s Emmy-winning 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, which has been digitally remastered and will run as a marathon on HBO2 on Saturday, July 20, beginning at 8:45 a.m. (You can watch it on HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO On Demand beginning July 15.)

So when PBS started promoting its “Summer of Space,” I was clearly the droid it was looking for.

And yet I get that some people may not be up for the marking of yet another baby-boom generation milestone, especially knowing Woodstock’s 50th (yawn) is just around the corner. Our preoccupation with the events and people that helped shape us, from assassinations and Vietnam to, yes, the Beatles, invite anniversary fatigue, and it would be easy to dismiss the focus on the moon landing as a longing for supposedly simpler, more heroic times.

Times, of course, were never simple, and that’s one of the things that comes through in Chasing the Moon, a six-hour presentation of PBS’s American Experience that runs for three consecutive nights beginning Monday, July 8.

President John F. Kennedy (in sunglasses) is briefed by NASA officials at the Saturn rocket at Pad B, Complex 37, Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
President John F. Kennedy (in sunglasses) is briefed by NASA officials at the Saturn rocket at Pad B, Complex 37, Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Starting with the idea that President John F. Kennedy’s lofty goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” was, at least in the beginning, as much about imagery as it was about scientific exploration.

Made for TV

The space race was the TV reality competition of the 1960s. No wonder we were hooked.

Written and directed by Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost), Chasing the Moon begins with Sputnik and ends (spoiler alert) with an image of Armstrong’s footprint in the lunar soil. In between are plenty of stories I don’t remember hearing from Walter Cronkite.

On the lighter side, there’s Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders, who, faced with using a “fecal containment device” that “looked like a plastic top hat with a sticky rim,” managed to wait instead until he returned to terra firma. (Mission duration for Apollo 8: ‎6 days, 3 hours, 42 seconds.)

Anders, who on Dec. 24, 1968, took the famous picture of the blue marble we call home rising over the moon, recalls that capturing that striking image hadn’t been part of Apollo 8′s preparations.

“Nobody had told us on the ground that the Earth was going to come up. We had no photographic instructions, no light meter. And suddenly there was this beautiful shot. Only color in the universe,” says Anders, whose voiceover, along with those of others, including astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Frank Borman, replaces the standard narration and talking heads.

Sergei Khrushchev, son of late Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who’s a rocket engineer who worked on his country’s space program, brings a unique perspective. Khrushchev, who emigrated to the United States in 1991, recalls, for instance, that by 1963, his father was ready to accept Kennedy’s original offer to share the moon project, but that the idea died with the assassination of JFK, whom he’d grown to trust more.

By then, the space race wasn’t much of a race, in part because Khrushchev, his son says, had different priorities, hoping to spend the money instead to better the living conditions of the Soviet people. “The real lunar race started only after my father was ousted” in fall 1964, the younger Khrushchev says.

The idea of a race, though, served Wernher von Braun, the German-born aerospace engineer — and former Nazi — who wanted to build bigger and better rockets and who convinced Kennedy the moon should be a goal. (The third night opens with satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer singing, of von Braun: “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical. Say rather that he’s apolitical. ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”)

Ed White, the first American to walk in space, during his Gemini IV mission. White would later be one of the three astronauts to die in the Apollo 1 fire.
Courtesy of NASA
Ed White, the first American to walk in space, during his Gemini IV mission. White would later be one of the three astronauts to die in the Apollo 1 fire.

Chasing the Moon also tells the complicated story of Air Force Capt. Ed Dwight, the African American astronaut trainee who wasn’t ultimately picked for the program. His earlier selection, apparently at the Kennedy administration’s behest, was so widely publicized that after the decidedly white Gemini IV astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space, he received mail from people thrilled to believe that a black man had made the walk.

According to Dwight, White, who later died in the Apollo 1 fire, along with Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee, told him the mail made him understand why his inclusion in the program had been considered so important.

They got mail

One message, after Apollo 8′s successful orbit of the moon, summed up a lot of people’s feelings about a year that had included the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago: “Thank you. You saved 1968.”

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt, a mathematician who worked in NASA's Mission Control in Houston, in 1968, when she worked on the "return to earth" strategy for Apollo 8.
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Frances "Poppy" Northcutt, a mathematician who worked in NASA's Mission Control in Houston, in 1968, when she worked on the "return to earth" strategy for Apollo 8.

Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the Mission Control engineer who was the “return to Earth” specialist on Apollo 8, recalls getting mail from all over the world addressed to “Poppy, Space Program, USA.”

“For quite a while, I was the only woman in a technical role in Houston,” she says, and she did a lot of interviews, including one with ABC News’ Jules Bergman, who suggests that “a pretty girl in miniskirts” might be a distraction at Mission Control.

During a PBS session in February, I asked Northcutt, who went on to become a lawyer and an advocate for women’s rights, if she cringed seeing that interview now.

“In a way, yes,” she said. “But, also, you know, this is 50 years ago. At that time, every American woman, as well as women all around the world, were basically living in a sea of sexism.”

Ah, yes. Good times.

Chasing the Moon: American Experience. 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, WHYY12.

More on the moon

Expect the programming to reach its flood as the anniversary nears. Here’s some of what’s on in the coming week:

The Day We Walked on the Moon (9 p.m. Sunday, July 7, Smithsonian Channel). One-hour documentary focused on the 24 hours surrounding the first moon walk. Participant you might not expect: Queen guitarist and doctor of astrophysics Brian May.

Apollo: Missions to the Moon (9 p.m. Sunday, July 7, National Geographic Channel). Documentary launches the network’s “Space Week” with “an immersive account that spans the full sweep of NASA’s Apollo Space Program, including all 12 crewed missions.”

Antiques Roadshow: Out of This World (8 p.m. Monday, July 8, WHYY12). Space-theme objects ranging from autographed NASA photos to a Star Trek script get the Roadshow treatment.

Nova: Back to the Moon (8 p.m. Wednesday, July 10, WHYY12). Looks at the scientific and business interests behind the push to return to the moon.

The Apollo Chronicles (8 p.m. Thursday, July 11, and Friday, July 12, PHL17). Four-hour documentary from Steve Rotfeld Productions in Bryn Mawr delves into some space program controversies and “includes newly declassified FBI documents and untold stories of CIA operations.”