James Oberg writes...
The recent blizzard of Apollo-11 anniversary programs was a fine tribute to that historical achievement of the American space program. The events of half a century ago came back to life in the dramatic portrayal seen on millions of television screens. But at the same time, many of the programs also displayed the sloppy errors, distortions and revisionist dramatizations which have come to characterize much of television journalism.
The wrong ship
To put the shortcomings of many of these programs into perspective, imagine the following practices for other historical documentaries or news, and ask whether they would ever be considered acceptable.
A Civil War film discusses Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but since there is no photograph of Lincoln actually giving the speech, a photograph of him at his 1865 inauguration is shown instead.
A program on the loss of the Lusitania in 1915 needs dramatic video of an ocean liner sinking, so with a voice-over describing the Lusitania, news film is shown instead of the Andrea Doria going down.
A sportscast of the World Cup is in progress, but since video difficulties prevented receipt of the views of the Colombia-Rumania game which was the subject of the report, an already-used clip of a goal from the recent Germany- Thailand game is shown instead.
Clearly, none of these hypothetical cases can be considered acceptable. Anyone trying to do so would be considered irresponsible, even unethical. And since there are legions of history buffs, ship buffs, and sports buffs out there, any such attempts would be immediately recognized and widely criticized.
But since spaceflight has always been an esoteric subject with a relatively short "history" and usually only superficial news coverage, similar misrepresentations are easier, even if by accident. Catching them and complaining about them is harder. But an effort must be made both to discourage future historical errors and to encourage those other programs which took the extra effort and got it right.
There's no need to exaggerate the inevitable innocent "bloopers" that any human effort is prone to. A TV network had a national newscast where the announcer kept seeing "Apollo-11" on the teleprompter, misinterpreted it as "Apollo-II", and pronounced it "Apollo Two". The N.Y. Times deserves minor embarrassment for twice referring to the "Apollo-1 moon landing" in a book review a few weeks ago. That's life.
In illustrating a Mercury splashdown, the TBS special 4-hour program "Moon Shot" used views of a Gemini splashdown instead. The difference is that Mercury capsules landed vertically beneath a parachute while Gemini capsules were slung horizontally from two separate lines. On July 20, CNN showed Apollo-11 graphics of a moon-walking astronaut whose spacesuit had red leg stripes not introduced until Apollo-13. "Space buffs" gleefully spotted the errors, but viewers were unlikely to be misled by these minor slipups.
Such naive bloopers even struck the White House during the July 20 ceremony honoring the Apollo-11 astronauts. In an otherwise fine speech, President Clinton related in his folksy style how "on the third day" Armstrong and Aldrin's Eagle lunar module descended toward a dangerous boulder field and Armstrong had to take manual control. But since July 16 was the first day of the flight, the landing on July 20 actually occurred on the fifth day. But again, it was no big deal.
Some historical visual scenes are certainly "interchangeable" by even the tightest standards, since no viewer is misled by showing one Gemini launch for another, or one group of engineers in Mission Control for another (unless, say, their actions are allegedly keyed to some event being described), or one "out the window" Earth or moon view for another. The criteria is clearly whether viewers will gain an authentic impression of the event, or not.
The serious distortions of space history which characterized many -- but by no means all -- of the anniversary documentaries went beyond this allowable flexibility, and include outright historical falsifications such as the following:
To compress events, Neil Armstrong's comments about making "One small step" have often been matched with video of him dropping down from the Lunar Module ladder. Actually, he landed on one of the vehicle's footpads, made several comments, jumped back up on the ladder to make sure he could, jumped down a second time, discussed his impressions of his surroundings, and only after that did he make the "small step" onto the moondust. So the rearranged video completely misrepresents what he meant by "one small step". For similar time compression, the dozens of immediately post-landing words from the crew about their spacecraft status are usually edited out, so that viewers get the false impression that "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed" were the FIRST words from the Moon.
To make use of a recently released Russian filmclip showing burning men running from a rocket pad fire, Ted Turner's "Moon Shot" used the shocking scenes to illustrate a 1969 Soviet moon rocket explosion, with a narrator comment about reminders of the dangers of space flight. The horrible film was actually from a military missile mishap in 1960 that killed 165 men, but really had nothing to do with the Russian space exploration program. The "Moon Shot" producers must have known this, yet evidently decided to misrepresent it for dramatic effects, even though nobody was killed in the actual 1969 Russian moon rocket explosion which was the subject of the sequence.
Flag-waving at the wrong time
To stress the "ordinary humanity" of excited space workers, they were often falsely shown behaving unprofessionally. In the prize-winning film "For All Mankind", right after the Apollo-11 landing, the Mission Control Center is shown erupting in cheering, flag-waving, and cigar-smoking. The historical truth is that the duty controllers stuck to their jobs, and the filmclips which were used really show them celebrating four days later after the successful splashdown of the crew and the end of their official responsibility.
Also, for the sake of visual impact and dramatic effects, film has often been misrepresented for what it was not. Viewers were told they were seeing authentic footage of space events which were not actually there.
Beginning with "For All Mankind", and copied by "Moon Shot", a striking view of the reentry plasma trail behind a descending Gemini capsule was presented as the rocket plume trail of an Apollo capsule heading for the Moon. The film invokes a marvelous image of speed across Earth's surface, but the Apollo's Saturn booster actually left no trail, and was never filmed since there was no view in that direction.
To stress the dangers of early manned space shots, sequences of rocket explosions are shown. Most of the explosions were identifiable as Jupiter and Titan rockets which had no connection at all with the Mercury program. But for colorful excitement and tension enhancers, they have been widely presented as unsuccessful Mercury tests.
The most egregious misrepresentation in "Moon Shot" was during the treatment of the Apollo-1 fire in 1967. As the narrator discusses the death of the three astronauts inside their burning capsule, a video is running of flames dancing behind a spacecraft window. TV critics who previewed the show called the scene "wrenching". But the video was actually a view from inside a Gemini capsule looking outward during the flames of reentry, and it had nothing to do with the Apollo fire. Instead, for emotional impact. the view was falsely described.
Some of these Apollo-11 historical video howlers have wider national implications, beyond mere questions of TV documentary ethics and practices. At the "Space Center Houston" museum developed for NASA by Disney consultants and their contractors, the feature movie "On Human Destiny" uses the false Gemini reentry plume for the Apollo lunar burn, then falsely portrays the flight control team in an orgy of irresponsible celebration immediately after the lunar touchdown, and then inaccurately overlays the view of Armstrong's descent down the ladder with his later words about "one small step". The film was reviewed and approved by NASA public affairs officials, who evidently did not recognize the errors. But if this is the level of Disney's historical reliability, it bodes ill for any similar Disney history projects elsewhere.
Documentaries such as these shows have presented exciting views of the dramatic historical events, but providing entertainment was clearly their primary goal. Historical accuracy was repeatedly sacrificed to do so. These measures certainly are acceptable when the goals are well understood, such as in the delightfully entertaining Hollywood version of "The Right Stuff", where all pretence of respecting the book's historical accuracy is subordinated to clear-cut visual stereotypes and amusing oversimplifications. And deadline- driven TV news programs often use stock footage, not always carefully labeled as such, to "fill in" for unavailable authentic scenes. But when TV programs pose as "true history" and are presented as documentaries, a higher standard of authenticity should be required.
The Apollo-11 anniversary programs showed again that such standards are not universally met. Some programs, such as Discovery's "One Giant Leap", were strikingly accurate, showing signs that some producers took the extra trouble to "get it right", and knew how to do so. But the widespread misrepresentations in other shows are more reminders that people should seek truth where it can be found, and the TV screen, with its need for visual excitement and compressed action, is not an environment always conducive to historical accuracy.