Most adults are familiar with the Apollo missions, yet this documentary takes viewers behind-the-scenes to witness both triumphs and tragedies associated with them. Emmy and Peabody award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings used 500 hours of footage, 800 hours of audio, and 10,000 photos to piece this narrative together.
Poppy Northcutt, a technical engineer from Cleveland who played a significant role in Apollo’s completion, is highlighted. However, this documentary also documents its tragic events when three astronauts died during its construction and mission.
National Geographic will cap off their Space Week on July 7 with Tom Jennings’ Emmy and Peabody Award-winning film Apollo: Missions to the Moon, using NASA archival material as his guide for an engaging account of America’s Apollo Space Program that spans all 12 crewed missions.
The film offers viewers a visual feast, taking them through the turbulent journey from Apollo 1 fire that claimed three astronauts’ lives to its conclusion with over 1,300 hours of footage, audio, and 10,000 photos–many rare or newly transferred–strewn together into one narrative.
Through an eyewitness-like experience created through an assortment of technologies – archival TV footage, never-before-heard radio broadcasts, home movies, NASA film and 30-track audio from mission control – viewers experience missions with no narration or modern-day talking heads to create an unforgettable two-hour epic experience. Plus Jenning’s signature style of first person storytelling creates an experience to remember!
Jennings and his team carefully framed every scene so as to capture authentic emotion – for instance, John Glenn from real-life astronaut fame from The Right Stuff recites his famous line that his family and friends were behind him “100 percent,” or Betty Sobel after astronaut Gus Grissom died – two powerful moments from this film.
One of the film’s highlights is the final lunar landing, featuring footage of Neil Armstrong making his historic first step on the lunar surface and footage of him and Buzz Aldrin descending onto it, setting up their American flag in what astronaut Mike Massimino described as an “desolate place.”
The film doesn’t shy away from exploring the technical challenges and risks of each mission, from showing you nail-biting moments like when an alarm in astronauts’ capsule nearly prevented them from landing safely on the moon, to feeling their joy at hearing “The Eagle has landed!” This film captures both sides of that process perfectly: technical challenges and risks as well as celebration upon hearing “The Eagle has landed!”
As future astronauts and space explorers prepare for what lies ahead, National Geographic’s two-hour documentary Apollo: Missions to the Moon marks a week of space-themed films airing as part of Space Week. Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings (“Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes,” “Diana: In Her Own Words”) utilizes his signature first-person narration style to provide viewers with an insightful look behind NASA’s Apollo Space Program – including all twelve crewed missions!
Jennings employs over 500 hours of film footage and 800 hours of audio to recreate America’s astonishing journey to the Moon. Instead of using modern-day narration to tell his tale, he relies instead on archived TV coverage, radio broadcasts, home movies, NASA film footage, Mission Control audio recordings and NASA film itself – the resultant experience is as if you were present for every historic milestone that occurred 50+ years ago!
One of the film’s many strengths lies in its focus on all involved in the program – not only astronauts themselves, but also how those back on Earth supported them as they set out to conquer a universe seemingly beyond their grasp. This can especially be seen when it comes to wives, children and friends supporting astronauts while in space.
The film features interviews with real-life pioneers who made up this group, such as John Glenn talking about how his wife and children stood by him 100%; when astronaut Gus Grissom’s wife Betty is asked what she thinks of Gus going into space she responds with honesty but also a bit of humility.
These moments illustrate just how much of an international team effort the mission truly was. Additionally, this film pays a poignant homage to Apollo 1, which tragically ended in 1968, by depicting media reactions following initial lunar landings – moments which united humanity around the globe with amazement and celebration and which have allowed further advancements in space exploration over 50 years.
The Film’s Visuals
This story is told through archival TV footage, radio broadcasts that were never before heard, home movies, NASA film and mission-control audio that provide an eyewitness-like experience. Several firsts are included such as combining NASA footage with “black box” recordings from Apollo capsules as well as synchronizing 30-track audio from mission control.
While this film highlights iconic moments from this historic achievement, it also sheds light on its human element. A memorable example is when John Glenn recounts being assured by his family they would support his mission “100%”. We also see Wally Schirra looking over his mission map aboard LEM during his moonwalk on October 12, 1968 while having to deal with a head cold; yet his expression remained composed.
The film also captures the media response to early missions with remarkable clarity, showing reactions such as one from Apollo 11 when its alarm failed, which could have de-railed it just moments before landing approach began. Furthermore, this documentary shows how people around the world rejoiced at America’s success and celebrated our triumphant voyagers!
As we learn more about the nine missions that ultimately saw six men land on the moon, it becomes evident that the film is an homage to all those involved in its success. Saunders states his intention was to portray all sides involved by following various individuals at various points during time: “My aim was to give viewers an impression of working on space missions – their challenges, rewards and frustrations,” according to him.
As such, the film does not utilize modern interviews to narrate these events; rather it collects media reports and candid images from newsrooms, living rooms, and control rooms – including stunning shots of Apollo command module (CM), service module (SM) and lunar module (LM), each an engineering marvel in their own right.
Film’s impressive scope is at the core of its impactfulness: stunning images of the lunar surface and a 40ft meteor impact crater are breathtaking, as is a shot of Buzz Aldrin on the moon looking back towards his camera with “a hint of smile, as if to say ‘did you get it?’.”
The Apollo program marked the first time humans left Earth orbit and visited another world, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s eight-year goal and giving us new insight into ourselves and each other. To commemorate this historic moon landing on its 50th anniversary, we invited Emmy and Peabody Award winning director Tom Jennings back into time by recreating some of its sounds during its mission.
He chose to edit his film using sound clips and archival recordings – some never-before-heard-of – to create an immersive documentary experience without modern day narration or explanation. “It creates a much richer experience for viewers,” says Jennings.
The film opens with an unforgettable scene depicting the events leading up to Apollo 11’s liftoff on July 20, 1969, with crowds cheering in a parking lot, massive crawler transporters bringing its rocket to launch pad, and massive swing arm reaching from gantry gantries extending. All these sounds were edited in by Milano, renowned editor whose credits include documentaries such as Honeyland by Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska and Surire by Bettina Perut and Ivan Osnovkoff among others.
Once in space, astronauts sent signals to a black box on the lunar module in order to record video footage, which would later be used by filmmakers to recreate their experience from astronauts on board. They used audio recorded at NASA Mission Control as well as this footage synchronized together for maximum impact – creating a tapestry of sights and sounds that recalls that magical time in space exploration.
Armstrong and Aldrin utilized Eagle’s ascent stage to safely return to lunar orbit from their Moon landing, taking photographs, collecting samples, and communicating regularly with Mission Control. Eagle also helped ensure their safe return home by returning safely into lunar orbit via lunar orbit itself.
At home, not everyone was thrilled about the Apollo program. Some saw it as a waste of resources that could better be spent on scientific research that yielded more immediate benefits for society; others worried that sending men to the Moon might set off a race between the United States and Soviet Russia during a critical phase of Cold War tensions.