July 16, 1969, dawned bright, hot and sunny on Florida’s Atlantic coast. It was the perfect weather on Earth to send its very first three inhabitants to the moon.
As the clock ticked down to the moment Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would blast off atop a Saturn V rocket, hundreds of millions of people the world over tuned in to television coverage of what would become one of the defining events in mankind’s history on this planet.
Legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite had been an unabashed supporter of the space program. At the time of Apollo 11’s launch, his was the top-rated newscast, besting rivals Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC and Frank Reynolds on ABC.
As he did during coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the respected Cronkite became the lens through which history is viewed live — and decades later.
As one CBS News executive put it, Cronkite owned the space story. Over the years, he had become an expert in it and gloried in explaining technical details while still expressing wonderment at the achievements of NASA’s space program.
So it’s only fitting that on this 50th anniversary, new CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell — new as in today is her second day on the job — will anchor CBS’s coverage from the Kennedy Space Center, following in Cronkite’s footsteps.
Just as she is one of the few women ever to solo anchor a network weekday evening newscast, an exclusive group whose other members are Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, the coverage will look at some of the few women who worked on Apollo 11.
Prominent among them is engineer Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the only woman inside Mission Control. She was responsible for calculating the maneuvers that would bring the astronauts home.
O’Donnell’s debut week will include several big gets, an exclusive interview with Caroline Kennedy, whose father famously decreed in 1962 that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and Jeff Bezos, the multibillionaire Amazon founder working on a lunar project to provide private space travel called Blue Origin.
Later tonight (at 10 p.m. ET/PT), O’Donnell will anchor a one-hour special called “Man on the Moon,” which weaves together Cronkite’s coverage of the launch and the epically historic first landing on the moon July 20, when Armstrong stepped gingerly yet decisively onto the lunar service and uttered the famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Clips of Cronkite’s coverage also appear in CNN Films’ feature-length documentary “Apollo 11,” which aired earlier this month and will be repeated twice on the evening of July 20. (See listings below.)
Development of the project began three years ago when Jeff Zucker, who has added WarnerMedia chairman to his title of president of CNN Worldwide, asked CNN executives Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton to come up with a project marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.
It was a logical step that they went with filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, as he had done a short film in 2016 for them on Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing, called “The Last Steps.”
During its production, Miller had forged a strong relationship with the National Archives, from which he was able to retrieve thousands of hours of previously unseen large-format film footage of Apollo 11 — and 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio.
With these sources, the film dramatically pieces together the nail-biting hours leading up to the launch, the drama of the voyage, the landing and the return to Earth in cinéma vérité style, giving the viewer a birds-eye view of history in the making.
“Todd is an exquisite storyteller. We knew he would make something really special,” said Sexton, VP of CNN Films. “Watching the film is such an immersive experience that I truly felt I was watching the original events, rather than watching a film about the events. Among the takeaways of the film for me are a visual appreciation of the mammoth scale of the mission, a sense of how captivated the entire world was to see these three men launch into space and watch Armstrong and Aldrin take the first human steps on the moon.”
Miller explained in a phone interview that not only did NASA have its own internal camera crews but it also contracted with another company to shoot footage of the mission. They filmed around-the-clock in 65 and 70mm footage, which he termed a precursor to IMAX. Because the format was expensive and unwieldy, they eventually shifted to 35mm. All of the reels were duplicated and sent to the National Archives, waiting for technology to catch up so they could be seen in their full glory.
“In post-production, we did not have a real cost-effective way to transfer everything so a company called Final Frame invented a prototype scanner, without which this wouldn’t have been possible because we were dealing with so much data on hard drives,” Miller said.
Miller, who is from Ohio, said that astronaut and Ohioan John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, was always a large presence there, piquing his interest in the space program when he was growing up. He said he watched large-format films at science centers and museums and that those filmmakers used innovative techniques that he aimed to apply to this project.
“I’m definitely not a full-fledged space nerd but I feel like I earned it on this project,” Miller said. “It’s been the honor of my life to involve the astronauts and their families in the making of this film and to ask them about maybe what you haven’t seen. It was also exciting to work with the NASA history department and drill down into finite details and present them in a thrilling, exciting new way. You realize what a huge group effort came together in building the spacecraft, down to the drill bit that went into the rivets. It’s astounding to me what an amazing effort it was.”
Speaking of honors, last month Miller was one of four recipients of the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication at the 2019 Starmus V Festival in Zurich. The others: Elon Musk, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and musician Brian Eno.
CNN Films also collaborated with Miller on a giant screen 47-minute “Apollo 11: First Steps Edition,” which is being exhibited in museums and science centers around the world.
“Production-wise, the giant screen film is a first for CNN Films, but more importantly, one of the most rewarding outcomes of the restoration and digitization of the original 70mm footage is that it will be available for future scholars and researchers,” Sexton said. “The giant screen film will make the history readily available to students and museum-goers around the world, hopefully for years to come.”
Miller’s projects are among a number of special programs, films and documentaries marking the first lunar landing — and he said that’s a good thing.
“The more films we get, the better, as we constantly have to be reminded what an amazing accomplishment it was, and how it brought together people all over the world,” he said.
The breadth of programming also serves to highlight little-known stories like that of Poppy Northcutt and of Ed Dwight, the first African American test pilot in the astronaut program.
Here are some of the programs about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Although some have already aired, you can catch many of them on demand and streaming.
“American Experience: Chasing the Moon,” PBS
The three-part, six-hour documentary examines the space race from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launches to the landing at Tranquility Base, putting all the key events into societal context.
“Apollo’s Moon Shot,” Smithsonian Channel
Six episodes airing on Sunday nights chronicle all the Apollo missions through the final one in 1972, with commentary from experts at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
“Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes,” History
The hour-long film features exclusive and rarely seen or heard audio and video including the Apollo 11 astronauts talking to Life magazine before and after their flight.
“Apollo: Missions to the Moon,” National Geographic Channel
This two-hour documentary dissects all the Apollo missions, from the first, involving the tragic launch pad fire deaths of astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil (Gus) Grissom and Edward White, through number 17.
“The Day We Walked on the Moon,” Smithsonian Channel
Astronaut Michael Collins, doctor of astrophysics (and Queen guitarist) Brian May and a host of old NASA hands are among the talking heads in a documentary focusing on the landing itself.
“Back to the Moon,” PBS
This “Nova” documentary examines what’s actually on the moon, including minerals and underground ice water, along with plans for a more permanent lunar presence.
“8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” PBS, 9 p.m., July 17
In live-read style, actors dressed in spacesuits lip-synch the actual audio from the Apollo 11 cockpit and landing module.
“NASA’s Giant Leaps: Past and Future — Celebrating Apollo 50th As We Go Forward to the Moon,” Science Channel, live from 1-3 p.m. ET July 19
Adam Savage hosts this live broadcast from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum during its three-day outdoor festival celebrating the moon landing. It will feature live reports from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the newly restored Apollo mission control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
“Wonders of the Moon,” BBC America, 10 p.m., July 19
This documentary looks at various lunar phenomena and influences including eclipses, tides and super moons.
“Apollo 11,” CNN, 6 and 8 p.m., July 20
This stunning feature-length documentary uses recently discovered large-format film to put you right in the middle of the countdown with Mission Control — and with the astronauts on their round-trip voyage.
“Moon Landing Live, BBC America, 9 p.m., July 20
NASA archives and news clips from the live coverage are used to bring viewers back in time 50 years.
“Apollo: The Forgotten Films,” Discovery, 8 p.m. July 20, Science Channel, (encore) 7 p.m., July 21
Footage from NASA Research Centers, the National Archives and news reports are the sources for a remarkable behind-the-scenes account of how engineers, scientists and astronauts worked tirelessly to send the first human beings to Earth’s moon.
“Confessions From Space: Apollo,” Discovery, 10 p.m., July 20
This one-hour special hosted by the Explorers Club features Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), who share insights, experiences and stories of the greatest adventure mankind has ever undertaken.