Nat­Geo marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the lu­nar land­ing with ‘Apollo: Mis­sions to the Moon’

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The Apollo moon mis­sions were ar­guably the great­est hu­man achieve­ment of the 20th cen­tury, a prod­uct of tech­ni­cal innovation, can-do at­ti­tude and sheer courage that left the world in awe and created a generation of kids that wanted to fly in space.

Sadly, we haven’t been back since the last visit in 1972 but that hasn’t ended in­ter­est in ex­plor­ing other worlds. And with the 50th an­niver­sary of the first moon­walk ap­proach­ing, a Na­tional Geo­graphic doc­u­men­tary re­count­ing that land­mark era fig­ures to garner even more.

“Apollo: Mis­sions to the Moon,” a two-hour spe­cial premier­ing Sun­day, July 7, uses archival TV footage, NASA film, Mis­sion Con­trol au­dio, never-be­fore-heard ra­dio broad­casts and home movies to give an im­mer­sive, be­hindthe-scenes look at the Apollo pro­gram and what hap­pened in­side space­crafts, Mis­sion Con­trol and liv­ing rooms across the coun­try as Amer­i­cans bore wit­ness to these events via TV cov­er­age.

Of course, the water­shed event was Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon on Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, a tran­scen­dent mo­ment in hu­man his­tory that had the world en­grossed and em­bla­zoned Armstrong’s words “One small step for man, one gi­ant leap for mankind” on the na­tional con­scious­ness.

Con­versely, there was the “suc­cess­ful fail­ure” of 1970’s Apollo 13, whose as­tro­nauts – Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert – faced mor­tal danger fol­low­ing an on­board ex­plo­sion but man­aged to make it back alive thanks to the uber-heroic ef­forts of the crews on Earth and in space.

Though news re­ports at the time painted a grim pic­ture of the peril the trio faced, Haise – who ap­pears in the doc­u­men­tary – says he wasn’t con­vinced all was lost.

“I re­ally never felt like we hit the edge of a cliff, that we’re about to go over,” Haise, now 85, told a re­cent gather­ing of jour­nal­ists in Pasadena, Calif. “I had a lot of con­fi­dence in the brain trust we had on the ground. I’d worked through two pre­vi­ous mis­sions, Apollo 8 and 11, and I knew how the pro­cess and the sys­tem worked. And I had fig­ured a lot of peo­ple on the ground were prob­a­bly get­ting less sleep than I was up there. And so I knew there were a great num­ber of peo­ple that were work­ing the problems that were iden­ti­fied that had to get solved to get us back.”

But he ad­mits, he did have con­cerns about the space­craft, which had to be shut down to con­serve power, re­sult­ing in the com­mand and ser­vice mod­ules freez­ing up.

Of course, any­one who saw Ron Howard’s 1995 drama “Apollo 13” knows what hap­pened: The space­craft pow­ered back up and func­tioned well enough to splash down in the Pa­cific, which Haise points out al­most set a record.

“If you looked at one of the ap­pen­dices and the over­all Apollo Pro­gram re­port for en­try per­for­mance,” he says, “I think Apollo 13 had the second-most-ac­cu­rate splash­down of the pro­gram. I think Apollo 10 did bet­ter. So the gear came back to life and ob­vi­ously per­formed beau­ti­fully.”

“Apollo: Mis­sions to the Moon” premieres Sun­day on Na­tional Geo­graphic.

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