The most suspenseful drama in TV history didn’t hinge on who shot J.R. or won a game of thrones.
On July 20, 1969, roughly 600 million viewers worldwide sat riveted to their sets as men walked on the moon, the climax to a series of televised events in which the characters, and the stakes, couldn’t have been more real.
The 50th anniversary of that nail biter has prompted an impressive collection of new films and TV documentaries, not to mention political rhetoric about traveling even farther into space. But for many folks under 50, Neil Armstrong might just as well have taken his stroll during the Ice Age.
The lunar landing, which once topped polls of TV’s most unforgettable moments, slipped to No. 21 in Nielsen’s most recent survey, left in the dust by more current events, including the Sept. 11 attacks, the 1994 O.J. Simpson Bronco chase and the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
“It’s sad, so sad,” said Jim Hays, the Minneapolis insurance executive who served as an executive producer on “Armstrong,” a new documentary about his longtime golf buddy. “When we were kids in public school, they’d wheel a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears into the classroom for every launch. Now, nobody cares. This country could all get behind something back then. We can’t all get behind anything anymore.”
There were plenty of youngsters at the Bell Museum planetarium in Falcon Heights on Tuesday to watch a 3-D history lesson called “One Giant Leap,” but most had no idea a golden anniversary was right around the corner.
One kid in the front row rolled himself into a ball and promptly fell asleep. A precocious teenager, who probably earns straight A’s in science, told the moderator that future trips to the moon would be a waste of resources.
When asked if he knew the name of the first man on the moon, a 9-year-old immediately responded, “Neil Armstrong!” Then he paused. “Or maybe it was Buzz Armstrong.”
Mike Lynch would have answered with a lot more confidence when he was that age. The WCCO Radio meteorologist remembers being a 13-year-old at Catholic youth camp on Big Sandy Lake when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He cajoled the staff into letting up him stay up past curfew (“I was like a mosquito that wouldn’t go away,” he joked) so he could watch the first steps on a television in the counselors’ lounge.
“We really needed a break from what was going on at the time — the assassinations of 1968 and that awful war in Vietnam,” said Lynch, who teaches astronomy lessons on the side. “It was such a grueling time, and then for that to happen. We stepped onto another world. We had done something never done before.”
Richard Hudson, who would go on to create the kids’ shows “SciGirls” and “DragonflyTV,” had just gotten out of high school when the Eagle landed. He recalls being so overwhelmed that he slipped outside that evening to sit by Lake Koronis in central Minnesota and gawk at the moon.
“I remember thinking, ‘Hmmm, they are up there.’ It was a moment of great pride,” he said. “Our perspective for historical events can get lost in the noise of modern media. But the moon comes up every night and has a way of reminding us. I don’t think the event’s importance can be easily lost.”
But young people today are less likely to be awe-struck.
“Kids appreciate the story, but they are coming from a generation that doesn’t think going to the moon looks that hard,” said Alec Habig, who teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “They’ve got a computer in their pockets that is more powerful than all the computers NASA owned back then put together. Heck, Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star.”
Some have a hard time seeing themselves in the story.
Rebecca Jacobson may run video for “One Giant Leap,” but she can’t muster as much enthusiasm as the male moderator she’s helping out. “It’s not my favorite topic,” the 20-year-old education assistant said. “It’s hard to get excited when all you see are these male, white astronauts.”
Modern-day filmmakers are making efforts to expand the story’s cast of characters. “Chasing the Moon,” a three-part PBS documentary, dedicates considerable time to Ed Dwight Jr., a black astronaut whom NASA hired for the Apollo team even though officials had no serious intention of sending him into space.
John Zobitz, a mathematics professor and environment science researcher at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, understands why his students were blown away by “Hidden Figures,” the Oscar-nominated 2016 film about female black mathematicians who played a critical, but largely overlooked, role in the space race. “That’s how the story needs to be re-envisioned for this generation,” he said. “With more inclusion.”
Perhaps a kid who sees “Hidden Figures” or one of the new documentaries may get hooked the way astronaut Garrett Reisman did when he was a youngster, watching the landing over and over again on his Super 8 projector.
That’s the main reason he lent his expertise to National Geographic Channel’s “Apollo: Missions to the Moon.”
“I made sure I watched the new film with my 8-year-old son,” he said. “I really hope he gets something out of the same footage I once did. Landing on the moon was our greatest accomplishment as human beings, and it has a tremendous power to inspire.”
Even if new viewers don’t rush out to buy a telescope, there’s another history lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten. The Apollo missions were driven by a determination to beat the Russians to the moon. And we won.
“The moon landing reflects confidence in American excellence,” said Walter Mondale, who was serving his first term as a Minnesota senator 50 years ago. “Here was bravery, here was science, here was us conquering the unknown. In this day and age when so many things disappoint us, it’s nice to look back at America at its best.”
612-673-7431 • @nealjustin