Robert Stone’s upcoming three-part documentary series on PBS, “Chasing the Moon,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and reimagines the Space Age as a mix of scientific innovation, political maneuvering, media spectacle, and personal drama. Oscar and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Stone aims to rethink the race to the moon for a new generation, invalidating much of the accepted legend surrounding the effort.
With a treasure trove of previously overlooked and lost archival material — much of which has never before been seen by the public — the film features a diverse cast of characters who played key roles in these historic events, including astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman and Bill Anders; Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier and a leading Soviet rocket engineer; Poppy Northcutt, a 25-year old “mathematics whiz” who gained global attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male NASA Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the Air Force pilot selected by the Kennedy administration to train as America’s first black astronaut.
For the filmmaker, who was 10 years old at the time of the mission, the series is the “culmination of a lifetime of thoughts that have been churning through my mind about this extraordinary period in which I grew up,” he said.
An exclusive look at the upcoming series features a rarely-seen clip of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy — president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and successor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following his death a year earlier — staging a protest on location at Cape Kennedy, the day before the launch of Apollo 11.
On July 1969, the eve of the mission, Tom Paine, Administrator of NASA found himself confronted by a group of civil rights demonstrators, led by Abernathy, who went to Cape Kennedy on the eve of the launch to speak out against the government prioritizing space travel above the conditions of the nation’s poor, of which African-Americans were disproportionately represented. He urged that the funds be instead spent on providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care to those in need. Abernathy’s speech was brief and the demonstrators peaceful.
Paine responded, stating: “If we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.”
He added that NASA’s technical advances were “child’s play” compared to “the tremendously difficult human problems” that concerned the SCLC. Although he did offer hope that NASA might contribute to addressing these problems, and then asked Abernathy to pray for the safety of the astronauts.
Abernathy agreed that he would certainly do this, and they ended their impromptu meeting by shaking hands.
While the moment was of no immediate or lasting consequence, it was burdened with history, with the bloody and deadly fight for civil rights still very fresh in memory.
Watch the clip below.
The six-hour program, which will air over three consecutive nights, premieres Monday, July 8, 2019, 9 p.m. ET on PBS.