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Chasing the Moon

Chasing the Moon

  • Premiered: 
    July 8, 2019
    (Click date to see TV listings for that day)

  • Network: PBS
  • Category: Series
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Type: Live Action
  • Concept: 
    A six-hour documentary series from The American Experience 
  • Subject Matter:
  • Tags: science, engineering, space

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Plot Synopsis

Written, produced and directed by Robert Stone, CHASING THE MOON is a six-hour, three-night AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary series about the space race -- from its earliest beginnings to the monumental achievement of the first lunar landing in 1969 and beyond. This series reimagines the race to the moon for a new generation, upending much of the conventional mythology surrounding the effort. The three-part series recasts the Space Age as a fascinating stew of scientific innovation and PR savvy, political calculation and media spectacle, visionary impulses and personal drama. With no narration and using only archival footage -- including a visual feast of previously lost or overlooked material -- the film features new interviews with a diverse cast of characters who played key roles in these historic events. Among those included are astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman and Bill Anders; Freeman Dyson, the renowned futurist and theoretical physicist; Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who played a prominent role in the Soviet space program as a rocket engineer; Poppy Northcutt, the 25-year-old "mathematics whiz" who gained worldwide attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male bastion of NASA's Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the Air Force pilot selected by the Kennedy administration to train as America's first black astronaut. Episodes include:

PART ONE (Premieres Monday, July 8, 2019): "A Place Beyond the Sky" begins in 1957 and tracks the early years of the space race as the United States struggled to catch up with the Soviet Union. The episode explores both the successes and failures of America's early space program, and the enormous stakes involved in the quest to reach the moon. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik, which, in the midst of Cold War tensions, signaled a dramatic technological advantage. If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, surely they could send a nuclear weapon into the heart of the U.S.; there was little choice but to join the space race. To rival the Soviets, President Eisenhower turned to rocket manufacturer and former Nazi S.S. Colonel, Wernher von Braun. During the war, von Braun had been responsible for the design of the V2 rocket, a weapon that heralded a new age in rocket science. Despite his past, von Braun had successfully reinvented himself in the U.S. as a charismatic visionary in the field of human space exploration. Under von Braun's leadership, the U.S. finally seemed to be making headway. On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket successfully launched Navy test pilot Alan Shepard 116 vertical miles up into space. With this victory, newly elected President Kennedy could now legitimately claim that the nation could vie with the Soviets for the mastery of this new frontier. The American space program grew rapidly. Cocoa Beach, NASA's missile and space launch site, was christened Cape Canaveral, and became the bustling center of this exciting new world. Less than a year after Kennedy urged the nation to aim for the moon, NASA secured another victory when John Glenn successfully orbited the earth. Back in Washington, Kennedy was having second thoughts about the enormous cost of the space program. In a tense summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna a year earlier, Kennedy had secretly broached the possibility of a joint mission to the moon. Khrushchev demurred, fearing that a collaborative effort in space might divulge the truth: despite claims, the USSR in fact had no greater arsenal. With his proposal of collaboration rebuffed, Kennedy refocused on his space program, touring NASA facilities in Houston and delivering passionate speeches that urged the nation to meet the great challenges of chasing the moon. But on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated, and Cape Canaveral was quickly re-named Cape Kennedy in his honor.

PART TWO (Premieres Tuesday, July 9, 2019): "Earthrise" (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."

PART THREE (Premieres Wednesday, July 10, 2019): "Magnificent Desolation" (1969-1970) takes Americans to the moon and back. After the successful Apollo 8 mission, questions about the space program emerged with new intensity. Dr. von Braun's Nazi past came into sharp focus as the public began to question his role at NASA. As newly elected President Nixon waxed philosophic about the achievements of Apollo 8, violent protests and a cultural revolution shook the nation. But NASA pushed forward and, in January 1969, announced the crew for Apollo 11. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would be in the craft that landed on the moon supported by Michael Collins in the command module. In July 1969, crowds flooded Cocoa Beach in anticipation of the historic launch. At the same time, civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a peaceful protest, criticizing the priorities of the federal government. On July 20, 1969, the biggest television audience in world history tuned in to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon's surface. Millions watched as Armstrong delicately maneuvered the lunar module only to discover the landing site was in fact a football-field sized crater, forcing Armstrong to hover and look for a new site with a mere 30 seconds of fuel. At last, he uttered the triumphant words, "the Eagle has landed." Safely on the lunar surface, Aldrin and Armstrong unveiled the plaque and American flag and received a call from President Nixon. They bounced along the lunar surface, demonstrating the low gravity for viewers at home. The mission had one remaining hurdle: to fire the ascent engine to safely reach Apollo 11. To the immense relief of all, the engine successfully roared to life and sped Aldrin and Armstrong safely back to the main craft; on July 24th, the crew splashed down in the Pacific. Despite the tremendous public excitement about Apollo 11, interest in space disappeared quickly. When Wernher von Braun teamed up with Vice President Spiro Agnew to sell the government and the nation a plan to send two nuclear-powered Saturn V's to Mars, they could not find congressional support. Kennedy's challenge to the nation, to its scientists and to its pilots had been met -- an American had walked on the moon before 1970. But the resolve to reach any further lacked clear focus. Unmanned crafts continued to explore, even reaching Mars and beyond, but the manned space program came to a close. Rather than propelling further exploration, as von Braun had dreamed, the moon landing was the crowning jewel of the Cold War space race.

Production & Distribution

  • Produced by Robert Stone Productions
  • In association with Arte France