During the 60s, 70s, and even 80s, Americans expressed their frustration with problems not yet solved by asking, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we [fill in the blank]?”
In facing the daunting challenge of climate change, a revived sense of the confidence and competence expressed in that complaint would be a welcome tonic.
The IPCC has warned that the world has less than 12 years to make the changes necessary to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees centigrade (about 2.7 degrees F). Seems impossible, right?
Yes – until one considers just how much NASA’s engineers and scientists accomplished in the 12 years after Russians shocked the world in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 1.
For this reason, those concerned about the future of a warming planet could learn from some of the many films and books released in celebration of the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo moon missions, especially the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
This post provides a guide to the best of these works.
Documentaries, feature films about the Apollo moon missions and NASA
The most ambitious of the new documentaries is “Chasing the Moon,” the three-part, six-hour addition to PBS’s long-running American Experience series. Initially aired in the second week of July, the documentary is still in rotation on many stations and is also available on blu-ray.
“Chasing the Moon” uses archival footage, much of it newly recovered, and contemporary voice-overs to trace the development of America’s space program, from the failed first responses to Sputnik to the downsizing of NASA after Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon.
The documentary vividly recreates the Cold War anxieties that led President John F. Kennedy to commit the U.S. “to land a man on the moon … by the end of the decade.” It also illustrates just how thoroughly the space program was integrated into American popular culture once NASA achieved some success.
Many of the smaller stories and vignettes incorporated into the decade-long narrative will surprise even viewers who lived through those years: the failed effort by President Kennedy to get Ed Dwight, an African-American engineer and Air Force pilot, included in the second group of astronauts selected for the Gemini and Apollo missions; the real horror of the fire that took the lives of the Apollo 1 crew; astronaut Frank Borman’s wry account of the state of the command module after fellow astronaut Jim Lovell’s bout with intestinal flu; and Polly Northcut’s impressions as the only woman engineer working in NASA’s Mission Control.
Despite the disappointment expressed with the lack of forward vision at the end of the effort, “Chasing the Moon” leaves viewers with a profound sense of shared accomplishment.
National Geographic’s new documentary, Apollo: Missions to the Moon, covers the same ground but in much less detail and much less time (two hours). It relies solely on archival footage and audio, but given the wide net spread by producers and researchers in the last decade, much of this archival footage will surprise viewers, too.
The same can be said of the documentary Todd Douglas Miller produced in association with CNN. Entirely devoted to the first lunar landing, Apollo 11 adds only a musical score to the archival footage and audio Miller and his team have assembled into their compelling 90-minute film.
By contrast, Eight Days: To the Moon and Back, the new BBC documentary, includes dramatic re-enactments and computer-generated recreations of critical moments in the Apollo 11 mission.
In response to the 50th anniversary, only one full-scale dramatization has been produced. Released at the end of 2018, First Man focuses on Neil Armstrong and his family, but in the final hour it recounts the Apollo 11 mission from launch to moon landing to return. First Man clearly portrays what other documentaries and books could only describe: the close bonds the astronauts and their families formed with each other and the emotional tolls they suffered when their inherently dangerous occupation took the lives of their co-workers/neighbors. Armstrong lost five colleagues during his time with NASA.
The only attempt to dramatize the story of the entire Apollo program, From the Earth to the Moon, has been re-released in a digitally enhanced version. Hosted by actor Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, the 12-episode HBO series builds on work the two did together on Apollo 13.
Although the film focuses on an earlier phase of the space program, Hidden Figures deserves mention here because the inspiring story it tells about three African-American women surmounting barriers posed by racism and sexism illustrates an important point about federal agencies and programs like NASA: they often provide the first opportunities for women and minorities to advance. Seeing it again in the context of climate change, Hidden Figures suggests that national policies and programs, rather than just private sector initiatives, are necessary to achieve the goals of climate/environmental justice.
New books about the Apollo moon missions and NASA
As engaging and inspiring as these films are, they cannot convey the full scale and complexity of the challenge posed by President Kennedy when in 1961 he committed the country to landing a man on the moon by the end of that decade. By focusing on the famously successful moon mission, these works sometimes skip over the confusion, frustration, and uncertainty that dogged the first years of the space program. As one might expect, books can dig more deeply into these matters.
Historian Douglas Brinkley covers the earliest years of the space program in the greatest depth. His American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race ends well before the Apollo 11 moon mission. An epilogue looks ahead to that event, but the main narrative ends with the cultural and political consequences of Kennedy’s assassination.
By that point, however, Brinkley has clearly laid out the problems the space program faced in its first few years: “From 1957 to 1961, for every rocket launch success at Cape Canaveral, there had been two disasters.” And he has provided some evocative measures of the scale of NASA’s response to Kennedy’s challenge.
Ultimately, the list of contributors to the Apollo effort would include some twenty thousand companies and more than four hundred thousand individual citizens.
Brinkley also makes clear that Cold War politics played the pivotal role in Kennedy’s decision to commit America to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Having been bested by the Soviet Union repeatedly from 1957 to 1961, America’s preeminence in science and technology was slipping away. By announcing his ambitious goal, and by re-organizing the United States’ many separate aerospace initiatives under one civilian agency, Kennedy enabled government engineers and scientists, and their counterparts in private industry, to find their bearings.
Two keys to these efforts, according to Brinkley, were Vice President Lyndon Johnson and NASA administrator James Webb. Behind the scenes, Johnson skillfully nudged congressional deliberations over NASA’s budget and mission. And within NASA, Webb created a smoothly functioning system that maximized the talents of its component parts.
In One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, Charles Fishman, who covered the space program for The Washington Post, echoes Brinkley’s main points about the early years – and then carries the story forward to the successful Apollo 11 mission that fulfilled Kennedy’s commitment. Unlike Brinkley, who focuses on politics, Fishman concentrates on practical problems NASA’s engineers had to solve.
In fact, while the book maintains a loose chronology, its chapters are thematically organized by the most critical of these problems, including rocket design and guidance, navigation, computing power, mission plan and vehicle design, space suits, and communications.
The solution to one problem had significant ramifications outside the program. To handle the complex equations involved in charting and maintaining a course to the moon and back, the astronauts needed a computer small enough and light enough to carry into space. Fishman recounts how engineers at MIT designed, built, and programmed a compact (~ 1 square foot) computer with an interactive keyboard astronauts could use in flight, even with their gloved hands. By being the first, biggest, and most demanding customer for the semiconductors used in these compact computers, Fishman argues, NASA stimulated the development of the digital technologies that remade the modern world.
Contemporary smartphones are just one result of that decades-long process – and the progress is staggering. “The Apollo [on board] computer had 0.000002 percent of the computing capacity of the phone in your pocket,” Fishman notes, “two-millionths of 1 percent.”
In the space program and its spin-offs, Fishman sees a relevant example for action on climate change:
If we want to tackle climate change, we can. [I]t can be solved with a moonshot in the sense of rallying Americans to a purpose, to a mission, to something that takes incredible effort. With leadership and clarity of purpose. We just need to be asked.
If one has time only to read one book on this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, Fishman’s is the book to choose.
In Apollo’s Legacy, Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA, examines the cultural and political impacts of the moon missions rather than the missions themselves.
In American public and popular culture during and after the moon missions, Launius detects four different responses or storylines: a dominant, “triumphalist” celebration of the program, a critique from the left (funds expended on the space program were better spent on social problems), a critique from the right (the space program marked another expansion of the federal government at the expense of the private sector and the states), and the conspiracy theories of a radical fringe.
Throughout his book, Launius reminds his readers that despite the fascination with which Americans watched the first moon landing, the Apollo program never enjoyed deep support.
In fact, at only one point before the Apollo 11 mission, in October 1965, did more than half of the public favor the program. In most public opinion polls of the 1960s, Americans consistently ranked spaceflight near the top of those programs they wished to see cut in the federal budget.*
Nevertheless, Launius concludes, “Apollo’s success offers the lesson that well-defined [and] well-orchestrated projects can be accomplished when sufficient leadership and funding are available.”
And such programs can pay off more broadly. According to a 1975 Chase Econometrics study Launius cites, every dollar NASA spent on research and development resulted in “a whopping 14:1 return on investment.”
For environmentalists, the most dramatic payoff of the Apollo program is its gallery of images of Earth from space. This legacy is examined in detail by historian Robert Poole, author of Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth. Poole highlights two images in particular: Earthrise, the shot of Earth over the lunar landscape taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, and Blue Marble, the picture of a fully illuminated Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts on their way to the moon. Both images have played critical roles in motivating environmental, and now climate, activists.
In Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, astrophysicist Adam Frank does Poole one better, by laying out the decades-long connection between space exploration, including the Apollo missions, and climate science. NASA missions to Venus and Mars, Frank argues, were critical to developing realistic models of Earth’s climate.
Further, humanity’s first steps in space were, and still are, crucial in helping humans realize they are now a planetary force. For Frank, the Apollo program served the related purposes of space exploration and environmental consciousness-raising.
An Apollo-like program on climate change would require a ready answer for critics who question whether the money would be better spent on lifting up the poor. Ironically, one now hears this argument more from the right than the left, based on the faulty supposition that only fossil fuels can provide the low-cost energy impoverished regions need for their development.
Charles Fishman provides the best answer to this criticism. During the years of peak spending on the space program, he notes in his concluding chapter, significant actions were nevertheless taken on poverty, opportunity, health, and equity – all while the U.S. waged war in Vietnam. The space program did not preclude economic and social progress. Action on climate change need not either.
The books and films discussed above can embolden Americans to take on the challenges posed by climate change by reminding them that they have successfully taken on great challenges before. If America can put humans on the moon, then it can solve the scientific and technical problems posed by climate change. And celebrating the memory of the Apollo program might just help solve the political problems.
*Ironically, a Gallup poll released on July 11 reported the highest level of support for NASA funding ever.
Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the book editor and a regular contributor for Yale Climate Connections. He is assistant professor of writing at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Prior to completing his interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Penn State in 2002, Michael was the majority owner and senior manager of Svoboda's Books, an independent bookstore that served Penn State's University Park campus from 1983 to 2000.
Note: originally published at Yale Climate Connections; re-published with permission.