Apollo: Missions to the Moon documentary creates a virtual time machine

National Geographic's riveting effort recounts all 12 crewed missions using only archival footage, photos and audio.

Apollo 11 sits on the launch pad in July 1969, awaiting its historic mission.

This story is part of To the Moon, a series exploring humanity's first journey to the lunar surface and our future living and working on the moon.

If you were born in the mid-1960s or later, your memory of the dozen Apollo missions may be hazy or even non-existent. After all, July 20 will mark 50 years since Apollo astronauts pulled off mankind's first moon landing.

The Apollo missions were the culmination of nearly a decade of work by more than a million people inventing technologies to achieve one of the greatest feats of human history. NASA recorded nearly every minute of it in photographs, video and audio.  

Click here for To The Moon, a CNET multipart series examining our relationship with the moon from the first landing of Apollo 11 to future human settlement on its surface.

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Many of us know the basic stories from movies like First Man and Apollo 13 and the excellent HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. But those docu-dramas are reproductions of the actual moments, with sets, special effects and famous actors portraying the actual groundbreaking figures. 

National Geographic's Apollo: Missions to the Moon, premiering July 7 on the National Geographic channel, taps NASA's archival cache to present an immersive, riveting two-hour documentary about all 12 crewed missions. Relying only on images, videos and audio from the time to tell the story, Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning director Tom Jennings has created a virtual time machine to the Apollo era.

The documentary follows the Apollo missions in order by stitching together 500 hours of film footage, 800 hours of audio and more than 10,000 photographs -- much of which will seem new because it's never been broadcast before. Much like the 2019 documentary Apollo 11, there's no current-day narrator or later day interviews to get in the way of experiencing the missions just as people did five decades ago -- triumphs and tragedies.

You may remember the character of astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff talking about how his wife and kids were behind him "100 percent." The documentary shows you the real Glenn uttering that famous phrase. As astronaut Gus Grissom chimes in to echo Glenn's sentiment, a camera in the Grissom home asks his wife how she feels about the assignment. Betty Grissom's response is honest and candid, giving us a taste of the very real danger her husband and all the astronauts faced.

Those potential dangers played out in the first mission. Beforehand, astronaut Roger Chaffee tells us in his gentle voice of the advancements we could expect from the missions, including "building new equipment that has untold uses in fields we can't conceive of today." Grissom even addresses the possibility of a "catastrophic failure" occurring during the missions.

"You sort of have to put that out of your mind," Grissom says, conceding that there's always a danger. "It can happen on the last one as well as the first one."


Apollo 1 astronaut Gus Grissom suited up.


Haunting images and video follow the astronauts as they head into the rehearsal for the first Apollo launch. The famous exchange -- "how are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between three buildings" -- comes just before we hear the astronauts' panicked voices inform mission control of the capsule fire.

The three astronauts aboard -- Grissom, Chaffee and Ed White -- died on the launch pad.

The charred side of the capsule, including the hatch the astronauts would have used to escape the flames, is clearly and jarringly examined in video coverage. Broadcaster Walter Cronkite walks us through some of the changes made the Apollo program in the wake of the tragedy as NASA prepared to resume manned tests nearly two years later.

The highlight of the documentary, predictably, is Apollo 11, focusing on every aspect of the mission, from liftoff and separation of the lunar module to the nail-biting moments when a program alarm in the capsule almost stopped the landing before it occurred. We also experience the cheers and tears in mission control and from observers around world welcome welcomed news of the Eagle module's landing on the moon.

Another key moment, two missions later, gave us the phrase "Houston, we've had a problem." The documentary offers an in-capsule look at the moment Apollo 13 experienced an oxygen tank explosion, as a variety of journalists, including Jules Bergman, describe Mission Control's efforts to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth. Fans of  Ron Howard's Apollo 13 will find the 1995 movie remarkably faithful to actual events, right down to mission control's exchanges with the spacecraft.

Sequences on each subsequent crewed mission unravel every nerve-wracking moment in amazing depth and detail while educating us on the objectives and challenges of each mission -- in the voices of those who were there at the time. At the same time, it doesn't whitewash perhaps less attractive details, including budget cuts, waning public interest and the opinion among many that the money spent on reaching the moon could have been better spent improving life on Earth.


Mission control engineers congratulate one another after Apollo 13's splashdown.


It's not all academic. Punctuating the voices of astronauts, engineers and journalists are those of other celebrities, such as Walt Disney and Bob Hope, underscoring the public's fascination with the space program. Hope even admonishes one of the astronauts, perhaps pushing the FCC boundaries, with the joke, "Watch it, no one likes a smart astronaut." (Say it to yourself.)

Intimate photos and video allow us to join the families of Apollo 8 astronauts as the husbands and fathers circle the moon on Christmas Eve for the first time in a dress rehearsal of the lunar landing.

The onboard video is stunning, especially if your memory is only of grainy black-and-white images of the TV.  The crispness of the color is enough to make you believe you're watching tape from something that happened this morning -- as long as you ignore the beehive hairdos, horned-rim glasses or the parade of mammoth mid-'60s cars.  The dramatic orchestral score by composer James Everingham reflects the emotion of the time.

Apollo: Missions to the Moon kicks off National Geographic's Space Week to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. Beginning July 8, the channel will feature other programs that take an in-depth look at astronaut Neil Armstrong, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the SpaceX effort to explore Mars and the impact of the Hubble space telescope.

Here's a clip from Apollo: Missions to the Moon showing Apollo 11's descent to the lunar surface:

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