Chasing The Moon: American Experience - episode: 3104H - Chasing The Moon: American Experience |

Part Two - Earthrise

Original Airdate: 
July 2019

(1964-1968) covers four heady, dangerous years in the history of the space race. As Americans moved through the sixties and reflected on the challenges ahead, many wondered: What exactly would it take to beat the Soviets to the moon?

Following Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson reframed the race to the moon as a tribute to the fallen president. Cold War tensions persisted, as rumors circulated that the Soviets were preparing to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon. NASA quickly developed the Gemini program, sending astronauts into earth orbit to practice critical maneuvers.

The Johnson presidency also introduced a new NASA program, the Apollo Project, with the mission of landing an American on the moon. NASA’s next generation spacecraft, Apollo 1, was meant to dramatically launch a new era — and Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were Apollo’s first crew.

In January 1967 the three men entered the capsule for a pre-launch training run. Two and a half hours later, a fire broke out.  All three men perished. The disaster shook the nation, and left the future of Apollo, NASA — and that of the entire moon race — in doubt.

In the aftermath, NASA faced harsh scrutiny. The horror of the casualties led more and more Americans to question why we were even trying to land a man on the moon. For many, ending the escalating war in Vietnam and fighting for civil rights seemed like better uses of the nation’s resources.

Yet the Cold War gave NASA’s mission new urgency. Amid concerns that the Soviets might exploit the hiatus to overtake the Americans, NASA pushed forward. CIA reconnaissance photos revealed that the Soviets were close to sending cosmonauts into lunar orbit and the Americans were determined not to be beaten to this milestone. NASA once again took a risk and decided to push the launch of Apollo 8 several months ahead of schedule.

Less than a year after the fatal Apollo 1 fire, the nation watched as Apollo 8 lifted off and headed for the moon on December 21, 1968, gathering around the live broadcast as the Saturn V took three men out of the gravitational pull of their home planet for the very first time.

An incredible gamble, every stage of the Apollo 8 mission had to operate perfectly. Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work in an operational capacity in mission control, recalls, "When they went behind the moon the first time we had what we called loss of signal. And then you have a predicted time for acquisition of signal as they come back around." Along with the rest of mission control, Northcutt waited in agony as Apollo 8 failed to reemerge at the predicted time, but finally emerged in a successful orbit.

As the crew orbited, they observed the barren lunar surface for the first time. The surprising highlight of the historic mission were the haunting images of earth as seen from space.

The space program seemed to have turned a corner and Americans celebrated this unparalleled accomplishment, hoping the nation would emerge from its difficult days. Walter Cronkite noted, "A year of trouble and turbulence, anger and assassination, is now coming to an end in incandescent triumph."
upcoming airdates


Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - 7:00pm
Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 1:00am
1 hour 56 minutes
Closed Caption: 
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