Mission Accomplished: Apollo Arrives on TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It took him eight years to do it, but Andrew Chaikin interviewed nearly all the moon astronauts, peered into miles of data and thousands of hours of video, television transmissions, and debriefing documents to write "A Man on the Moon."

This engaging and thorough tome is the basis of a brilliant new 12-hour miniseries for television: "From the Earth to the Moon" (premires April 5, 8-10 p.m., on HBO, and airs for six successive Sundays through May 10). At a cost of $65 million, it is a high-tech, well-written, directed, and acted series - with nary a dull moment. Executive producer Tom Hanks, who is the series' guiding star as well as its host, unifies the various episodes with his genial commentary.

Mr. Hanks, of course, starred in the popular "Apollo 13," and his research for that film led him to Mr. Chaikin's book. When asked to visit the set of "Apollo 13," Chaikin learned that he and Hanks were the same age and grew up watching the space missions with the same rapt fascination.

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Hanks was taken with Chaikin's riveting history of the era. He asked Chaikin to help with his own made-for-TV series on the space program. Chaikin answered research questions, provided anecdotes, played a cameo role in the first episode, and even wrote some of the dialogue.

"For me, [the great thing] is the experience of seeing Apollo re-created on film - scenes I could only imagine from the astronauts description," Chaikin says. "When I went to the set, everybody was caught up in it - they became converted and wanted to give themselves to it like the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo. Somebody once said that if you counted all the overtime, we got Apollo for about two-thirds the actual cost."

With the fabulous accomplishments of the Apollo missions at the center of each story, the series manages to show some of the human cost, some of the cause and effect of world events, and much of the texture of the times in which the space program was born. It spotlights the "synchronicity of world events" that led to men arriving on the moon.

What sticks with the viewer is the heroic dimension of the missions - the moral and physical courage it took for men to leave Earth's atmosphere in a "tin can on top of a rocket," as director Lili Fini Zanuck puts it.

Ms. Zanuck's beautifully realized, inventively filmed episode (Part 3: "We Have Cleared the Tower") concerns the first manned space flight, Apollo 7. "I never realized how much danger the astronauts would have been in if they had landed on [dry land] - that would have been it. On that mission they were using the old couches - and when you see them, you realize they are folding lawn chairs."

Zanuck had been interested in the space program only as a spectator until she saw "The Right Stuff."

"None of the astronauts liked that movie," she says, "but I became aware for the first time of the kind of men who made these decisions. That whole jocular, machismo kind of experience - I see it in the other pieces I'm developing. This is a subject that appeals to me. I am drawn to these old-fashioned heroic men ... I have an affinity for the true definition of heroism - when you did something to earn it."

As technically brilliant as the Apollo missions may have been, it is this human dimension of heroism and aspiration that rivets the viewer.

Chaikin believes, he says, that walking on the moon is the single event by which our century will be remembered.

"Go outside some night and look at the moon and remind yourself that men have walked there.... That moment belongs to us, to our time."

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