'Moon' relives glory, gaffes of space race


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."

Mr. Aldrin dropped a space capsule to the bottom of a swimming pool, descended to it, and, says the narrator, "right before our eyes, he invented the art of working in space."

Mr. Aldrin assembled his own equipment, including "footholds, handholds, Velcro grips, bungee cords. By the time he was ready to go, he looked like Mr. Goodwrench." On his Gemini mission, he made space work look as easy as White had made space walking.

But "Moon Shot" is much more than just a rah-rah show. The second episode, on Wednesday, begins with a thorough examination of America's greatest space-race tragedy: the deaths of White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee during an Apollo test on Jan. 27, 1967.

"Moon Shot" indicates there were two main causes of the fatal fire on launch pad 34. The Soviet Union had been first to reach every space landmark up to that time, including the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957), first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961) and the first to walk in space (Alexei Leonov, 1965). Rushing to catch up, says flight director Chris Kraft, "we'd gotten too much in a goddamn hurry."

The other cause was the extraordinary complexity of the Apollo space capsule, which the narrator calls "probably the most complex thing ever put together by humans. As much technology as a nuclear submarine crammed into a package the size of a minivan. The electrical system alone had 30 miles of wire."

Somewhere in those 30 miles of wire, a short-circuit produced a spark that landed in pure oxygen and produced a fire like a blowtorch, one that ended almost as quickly as it began. "We always expected to lose someone, someday, but not on the ground," the narrator says.

"Moon Shot" concludes with coverage of the first combined space mission of the United States and the Soviet Union, Apollo-Soyuz. The two-man Soviet crew was headed by Mr. Leonov; the three-man American crew by Slayton, who says that during this time, his old rival Mr. Leonov became "my buddy."

That's a nice way to end this show, with a warm feeling and without the clouds of doubt and indifference that shroud the space program now. "Moon Shot" reminds us that our pioneering astronauts were brave men who deserve to be well- remembered.

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