'Moon' relives glory, gaffes of space race

July 11, 1994|By Lee Winfrey | Lee Winfrey,Knight-Ridder News Service

With the U.S. space program in the doldrums, fans of the final frontier will appreciate the nostalgic look at the better days provided by "Moon Shot."

The impressive and engrossing four-hour documentary will air in two parts on cable's TBS, at 8:05 p.m. todayand Wednesday. The narrator is Barry Corbin, whose portrayal of fictional ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield on CBS' "Northern Exposure" has apparently given him real-life credentials as a space spokesman.

Spanning the era of 1959 to 1975, "Moon Shot" covers the one-man Mercury flights, the two-man Gemini missions and the three-man Apollo voyages, which culminated in Neil Armstrong's first human step upon the moon on July 20, 1969. About all that is lacking in this admirable report is a baritone balladeer on the soundtrack singing, "Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd never end . . . "

But they did end, a goodly while ago, and if you asked members of Generation X for their opinions of the space program, the answers would probably refer to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster or the flawed Hubble Space Telescope instead of Mr. Armstrong intoning, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

But the space program is worth remembering for many more reasons than spinoffs such as Teflon, Velcro and Tang. Heroic astronauts did death-defying deeds in the 1960s, exploits vividly recalled by 15 of them, who are given the most time on camera in "Moon Shot."

In Rushmore DeNooyer's compelling script, Mr. Corbin speaks the words of Deke Slayton, who died last year while this show was in production. The words were taken from tape recordings Slayton made for his autobiography, "Deke!" published this month by Forge.

The astronauts heard most often in contemporary comments are Alan Shepard, who made America's first space flight in 1961; Buzz Aldrin, who followed Mr. Armstrong down the ladder to become the second man on the moon; and Wally Schirra, a rarity because he flew in all three programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

The most conspicuous absentee on "Moon Shot" is Mr. `f Armstrong. A TBS spokeswoman said Mr. Armstrong had given many interviews during the 20th anniversary of the moon landing and decided not to do any for the 25th this year.

Fighting words

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration always wanted to make its efforts to put a person on the moon look smooth and easy. In reality, according to "Moon Shot," the work was extraordinarily difficult and complicated, and an abundance friction and bickering flared behind the scenes.

The astronauts were proud, often prickly and extremely competitive. Astronaut Jim Lovell recalls an ego problem that arose when the Gemini program began. The natural job titles for the two-man crew would have been pilot and co-pilot. But no astronaut wanted to be a co-pilot. So NASA came up with the titles of commander and pilot, which they found acceptable.

The astronauts are still disagreeing about who should get credit for one famous feat. Mr. Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders were the first three people to orbit the moon. All took photographs of the unique and beautiful sight, shown here tomorrow night, of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. Each says that his photograph was used for a U.S. stamp, called Earthrise, that was issued in 1969.

Previously unpublicized tidbits abound in "Moon Shot." Subtly but distinctly, the astronauts admit that many hero-worshiping young women wanted to go to bed with them, and that astronauts often turned the women's dreams into reality.

"It was like having magic goofus dust placed on your shoulder when they hung that title 'astronaut' on you," says Walter Cunningham. Viewers may be most surprised not by this admission, but by the fact that such frolics were never mentioned by the news media back then, a hush-hush attitude hard to imagine in today's scandal-mongering tabloid TV world.

A good turn

More important, "Moon Shot" gives full credit to Mr. Aldrin for solving one of the biggest problems that preceded the moon landing: how to work in space. When Ed White became the first American to walk in space, in 1965, he made it look easy, but, as Slayton says, "all he did was float around." When later astronauts tried to do work outside their space capsules, difficulty and danger resulted.

Eugene Cernan says that when he tried to turn a valve, the valve instead turned him, and he started tumbling and rolling. He wound up almost exhausted and near collapse, sweating off 13 pounds before he finally clambered back inside his capsule. Labor on two later missions was so arduous, says Slayton, that "working in space was beginning to look like the show-stopper."

Then came the brainy Mr. Aldrin, a Phi Beta Kappa Ph.D. He began with the intuition that strenuous effort was not the way to go, that his approach would be "gentle and delicate."

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