Apollo as it Really Happened: A Conversation with Tom Jennings and Mike Massimino

Out There iconOut ThereBy Corey S PowellJul 8, 2019 11:34 AM
Apollo 8 TV Broadcast - National Geographic Creative
For children of the 1960s, Apollo was a not a single event but an extended way of looking at the world. Here, boys watch the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast. (Credit: Bruce Dale/National Geographic Creative)


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The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11–which kissed lunar soil on July 20, 1969–has prompted a flood of retrospectives. My local Barnes & Noble features an entire long table covered with anniversary books. If you want a lightly fictionalized big-screen account of Apollo 11, you can watch the unexpectedly engaging Damien Chazelle drama First Man. And if you want a documentary, you’ll find a bewildering number of options. One of them is not like the others, however.

In his new film Apollo: Missions to the Moon, director Tom Jennings has stripped away all of the artifice of dramatic reenactments, talking-head interviews, and portentious narration. Instead, he has assembled an experience constructed entirely out of recovered moments. Everything you see here was recorded as it happened, and in many cases rarely seen since then. This approach was inspired by Jenning’s childhood memories of a Saturday morning kids’ show called “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. Each episode faked the experience of being at a famous moment in history (the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of the Alamo). Jennings mimics that approach, but using real footage instead.

The result is at first jarring, then meditative, then transporting. To get fully inside this reassembled world of 1960s NASA, I spoke to Jennings himself about the making of Apollo: Missions to the Moon. And to get a knowing perspective on the Apollo legacy, I spoke to the ever-entertaining former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino. An edited version of our conversation follows below.

With so many people looking back at Apollo 11 right now, what made you think that you had something different and meaningful to say?

Jennings: Early on we realized that everybody [covering the anniversary] is going to be focused on Apollo 11 and landing on the Moon. We wanted to get more perspective. Very quickly we decided that we were going to cover all the Apollos, all twelve manned missions, so you get a more complete story. Apollo 11 makes more sense when you understand everything that led up to it. Why we didn’t go back to the Moon after Apollo 17, and what the missions after Apollo 13 accomplished, also make more sense when you realize from whence it all came. And we used only media from the time.

To me, the biggest surprise about your documentary is how much of the archival footage I’ve never seen. How did you manage that?

Jennings: One of the first things I told my guys was throw out as much Walter Cronkite as you possibly can. It’s easy to lean on Walter Cronkite all the time—he’s so good and so recognizable. Instead, we went to local TV stations like in Coco Beach, Florida, near the space center; Houston, Texas; or my home state of Ohio, which has great TV archives, especially in Dayton. They covered the space program extensively because of Dayton’s connection to flight through the Wright Brothers.

We tried to tell the story with people you’ve never seen or heard before. We wanted to create a film that people would walk away from and feel like, “Gee, that’s what it was like to be alive then.” It’s meant to be experiential. When a narrator comes in, it removes you a bit from the story, you become an observer. In this case, you’re almost an active participant in the story.

Wally Schirra during one of his more serious moments aboard Apollo 7. (Credit: NASA/National Archives)

Did you uncover any notable pieces of lost history along the way?

Jennings: I’ll give you one quick example. We hadn’t planned to include Apollo 7 in our film. Then we found an interview with a NASA spokesperson talking about how Apollo 7 was going to have a special camera aboard. It was going to be the first live television [space] broadcast. I thought, “That’s interesting, I wonder what that broadcast looked like.” We went in search of it and we found it. It was hilarious. This was the first manned mission after the tragedy of Apollo 1. The Apollo 7 astronauts [Donn Eisele, Wally Schirra, and Walter Cunningham] were goofing off, having fun with this TV camera and this live broadcast from space.

That inspired us to keep digging. We found out that they [the Apollo 7 crew] went on the Bob Hope show. That’s in the film: The three of them are sitting there talking to Bob Hope and he’s asking them, “Have you seen your ratings?” He’s critiquing their broadcast from space, saying that only he can bestow on them the wisdom to understand what it takes to make great TV. Wally Schirra has a fun dig back. Bob Hope asks, “How do you think I’ve been so successful all these years?” Wally, with perfect comedic timing, says, “Luck?” We just stumbled across one interview, and it became one of my favorite moments in the whole film.

Time for an astronaut’s perspective: Mike, you were a child at the time of the Apollo 11 landing. How did it feel reliving that time?

Massimino: I was six, and Apollo 11 is what inspired me to become an astronaut. Watching the movie was very emotional for me, because it brought back my little-boy yearnings of wanting to be like those guys. There are many things I didn’t remember as a kid, like I didn’t remember the Apollo 1 fire because I was too little. I also forgot all the things the crew did: How they went into orbit, how they re-lit the engines, and all the details of it. At NASA I knew all about “Hey these guys went to the moon, this is what they learned” but not so much “This is how they did it.”

Many kids had a similar moment of inspiration to become astronauts, but you actually did it. When did you realize it was more than a childhood whim?

Massimino: On [Apollo 11] launch day, I was at summer recreation in my elementary school-, and we were all watching. I remember thinking that this was the most important thing that had happened in 500 years. More than that, I thought, this is the most important thing that’s going to happen in the next 500 years. I felt like it was going to define our time.

We had learned in school about the great explorers, about the Renaissance. I was thinking that 500 years from now, people will look back at this like I’m learning about what they did 500 years ago. I knew there were other things going on in the world, but for me [space exploration] became my thing.

Then as I got older I thought, “How the heck do you grow up to be Neil Armstrong?” I didn’t think about it again seriously until my senior year of college and went to go see The Right Stuff. The film brought up these feelings again. I stated finding out about what was going on with the Shuttle program, this was in the mid-1980s, realizing, I’m an engineer, I could somehow work on this. I also wanted to apply to be an astronaut eventually. I started finding out about it, then I went to graduate school…

You have such a self-deprecating way of describing your successes.

Massimino: But that’s kind of the way it worked! I was clueless, full of self-doubt and craziness. I got rejected a bunch, I got medically disqualified one time, it wasn’t a straight path. But I always had that passion.

I was trying to explain this to my son. It’s hard to be really honest with yourself [about your passions]. You think, “Oh I can’t do that.” If somebody goes around bragging, “Oh, I’m going to become an astronaut,” pretty much that means they’re not, because they’re an arrogant jerk. It’s important to be honest with whatever the thing is that captures your fancy, whether it’s music or ceramics or flower arranging or making furniture. Whatever it is that captures your fancy, that’s what you are meant to do. That’s the way I felt about this [space] but I wasn’t honest with myself about it until I was out of college.

You got to develop relationships with many of the Apollo astronauts we see in the film. What were they like in real life?

Massimino: I met [Apollo 16 lunar module pilot] Charlie Duke when I was in grad school. It was 1989, the 20th anniversary of Apollo. I had just failed my qualifying exam at MIT and was going to be booted out of school probably. I was in the dumps. I was getting married that year, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I went up to Charlie with this card to get his autograph. He signs the thing and looks up at me and says, what do you do? And I tell him, and he asks, where do you go to school? I say, I go to MIT.

He says, “Oh MIT…That place kicked my ass! It was really tough. I never thought I’d make it out of there. But I did.” When I heard him say that—and I still get choked up about it—I was thinking, “If it was tough for him and he could walk on the moon…” NASA makes you write a little essay when you interview about why you want to be an astronaut (“keep it to one page or we’re not going to pick you”). One of the things I wrote about is that as an astronaut you can inspire people, and I told that story about Charlie Duke.

I met Charlie years later and became friends with him. I met Neil Armstrong my first week of being an astronaut; he spoke to our class. I met Mike Collins when I was in grad school. I was working at NASA HQ. I went and sat down with him while he was having lunch all by himself–oh, I reminded him about that later. Alan Beam became a very close friend. It’s great because these guys are my ultimate heroes, and always will be.

Spectators camped out for Apollo 11, like a nerd Woodstock or like a Burning Man that actually stood for something. (Credit: Otis Imboden/National Geographic Creative)

Tom, is that the kind of inspiration you want people to get from your film? Or do you have a different message in mind?

Jennings: Rory Kennedy did a film last year called Above and Beyond. In it she talks about how NASA looks down on Earth as much as it looks to the heavens, and the farther we go out the better we can understand our own planet. I think the same holds true for the past versus the future. We have all this information available to us today, but there’s no collective memory. I think it’s important to understand what people were able to do at that time [working on Apollo] and apply it to how we look at our world today.

They had laid the foundation to go into deep space, and then it ended. Those rockets were mothballed. Here we are 50 years later, and we can’t even get back. It was a conscious choice made by the government at the time: We’re not going to fund this anymore. I talked to Poppy Northcutt, one of the few women working at NASA at the time. I asked her about the sense of loss that they all had when Apollo 17 finished. She said that if we had kept going, we would have landed on Mars 30 years ago.

That’s a cautionary tale that people can extrapolate from this film. We had it all there for the taking, and then we stopped. What would we be like today if we had kept going?

Apollo: Missions to the Moon implies that there was something special about the Apollo era, something beyond the Cold War politics that made it happen. How would you describe the thing we’ve lost?

Jennings: This notion of the Space Race faded away for the people who were hands-on making it happen. That’s what I saw as I spent more time with the footage. They were going to get there [to the Moon], they just had no idea how. There was a sense that anything was possible, even though they had so little technology compared to what we have now. In many ways, people were more clever then. They had a quiet confidence: We’re going to figure this out, and we’re willing to risk our lives to do it. It was a different mindset.

The other thing I came away with, is that the whole world really did stop [when Apollo 11 landed]. Everybody watched what was happening, and everybody was beyond thrilled at what had occurred. Mike and I were talking about how that moment couldn’t be duplicated. If we go to Mars, would the world stop again? I don’t know that it would.

Apollo 17 was the beginning of the end, the last of the crewed Moon missions. Even if astronauts return in 2024, it will be a totally different kind of event. (Credit: NASA)

Where do you imagine we’ll be 50 years from now? Could there ever be another Apollo moment?

Massimino: I don’t think we’re ever going to have another Apollo 11. It might take another 500 years for something that big. When we first find life somewhere else, that will be the next big thing.

In 50 years, I hope we’re on the Moon to stay. I hope we have a base of operations, maybe a tourist thing going on, a way to mine resources, a way to launch on to other places, and a science station that’s international. Low-Earth orbit will be a place where we can learn and do experiments and manufacture, but that’ll probably all be commercial. People going onto vacations in low earth orbit, I hope that happens. I hope we are on Mars, too, to look around, get some rocks and come home.

And I hope we have a better way to get around! Some of the technologies from the private companies like Virgin Galactic, I think they can turn it into says to better ways to travel around our planet more quickly, to make it smaller. I think we’re finally ready for a space plane. I want better ways to get around the universe, too!

Jennings: Sure, I’d like 90 minutes from Los Angeles to London. The Moon I agree with. I’d like to see deep space probes go where no probe has gone before, and find ET a lot sooner than 500 years from now.

Massimino: That’s the next thing, whether it happens tomorrow or 500 years from now. Finding ET, that’s our next big Apollo 11 moment.

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