TV Marks Mankind's First Moon Landing 25 Years Ago
`GOOD morning. The day that man has dreamed about since history began is here.''
The voice on TV was Walter Cronkite's - portentous, commanding, dripping with authority.
An absurdly pompous statement? Only in retrospect, and only for those who weren't there, because it happened to be spoken at the one moment in history when such a claim was simply a statement of fact.
It was the morning of July 20, 1969, and this was the day that myth and literature had been envisioning for a few thousand years. That evening, man would attempt his first moon landing. My wife still ribs me about the fact that I was so caught up in the event I put two TV sets in front of us, in case one broke down at the crucial moment.
Now TV is marking the 25th anniversary of this event with a flurry of shows about the space program and the moon shot. In terms of careful reconstruction and human interest, one of the most notable is ``Moon Shot,'' a four-hour documentary, based on the book, airing on TBS over two nights: Monday, July 11, and Wednesday, July 13, from 8:05 to 10:05 p.m. each night.
This is the astronauts' own ``inside story,'' covering the years leading up to Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon and a few years afterward. The adventure is retraced through the eyes of several astronauts who took part, but especially from the perspective of Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, who were among the original ``Mercury Seven'' publicly introduced in April 1959.
Lots of interviews with astronauts and others, rare training footage, and material unearthed from space-agency archives make this a compelling personal saga, even if it borders on the corny once or twice. The program effectively mixes technology and emotion as you watch test pilots - cocky and talented - become astronauts.
Actor Barry Corbin is the voice of Slayton, a device that adds interest without undermining credibility. The men's macho humor and hard-driving ambition runs through the narrative, along with a refreshing frankness. One astronaut is a bit of a hot dog, he says, another one a real joker. Glenn, Slayton notes, seemed ``chosen for the role'' and cautioned his colleagues about their behavior (the future senator worried even then about congressional funding).
Strangely, though, the TBS blockbuster has little gut connection to the moon landing's overwhelming impact when it was happening, to the emotions felt while actually living through a unique event in human history. On the show you see the familiar hardware and feel the drama. You're awed by the astronauts' feats all over again. You may even ask yourself - as the admiral did in the film ``The Bridges at Toko Ri'': ``Where do they get such men?''
Yet the innocent wonder is inevitably missing, the sense of the millennium arrived. The first time around it was a modern myth, the kind of story that would once have been recited by a shaman before a fire. In 1969, although the events being recorded by TV were of momentous importance, the presence of TV itself - in space and on the moon - was a major event. The medium wasn't the message, but at least partly it was the occasion. Viewers went to the moon with the astronauts, a trip that was also a mental passage of the kind you can experience only once.
That may be why the first landing, an achievement that historians will be noting a thousand years from now, so quickly became old hat in our fickle electronic culture. By the next landing, some viewers were saying, in effect, ``Oh, people dancing on the moon again? Let's see what else is on.''
Even a show as forceful as the one on TBS cannot be expected to replicate the magic, no matter how minutely the program dissects the day-by-day challenges of astronauts and rescreens memorable space images. This documentary is human, vital, revealing, and often powerful. But you can't go home again.