When humans first landed on the moon in July 1969, among the tens of millions of people watching was a rapt 10-year-old in England, future filmmaker Robert Stone.
“It was like four o’clock in the morning,” Stone recalls. “My mother woke me up, sat me down in front of the TV, and we watched…It was kind of in the sweet spot of life where it left really an indelible impression upon me.”
Five decades later Stone immersed himself anew in NASA’s historic lunar mission to write and direct the documentary Chasing the Moon for the PBS series American Experience. The six-hour film, told in three parts, is nominated in the prestigious Emmy category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
“I was really looking to try to make a film that would capture my memory of what it was like growing up as a child in this time where we were embarking on this adventure and we didn’t know how it would turn out,” Stone tells Deadline. “There was this real sense of optimism about the future and that anything was possible, and that’s just magic.”
Unlike some other Apollo 11-themed films, which Stone sees as too astronaut-centric, the director says he wanted to explore the totality of the program that culminated with Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin stepping onto the moon.
“I don’t think you can learn anything from what the moon landing was, or the effort—the entire country was united behind this 10 year effort to put a man on the moon—unless you put it into context,” Stone insists. “The real story was what happened here at home on our planet, and how it impacted us.”
Chasing the Moon contextualizes NASA’s moonshot within the broader Cold War. In 1957 the Soviet Union became the first country to launch an artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit, Sputnik 1. In a further blow to American exceptionalism, the Soviets also rocketed the first man into Earth’s orbit in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. President Kennedy was responding to the political moment, the documentary demonstrates, when in 1962 he famously announced the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
“We didn’t do this to enlighten mankind,” Stone argues. “It’s nice to look back and think that that was our purpose, but that really wasn’t our purpose…It [was to] demonstrate American technological superiority and therefore hopefully cultural, moral, political superiority. That was the idea. That’s what it was about.”
Among the revelations in the film, documented in White House recordings, is that JFK initially displayed tepid enthusiasm for space exploration.
“He was kind of pushed into it reluctantly,” the director maintains. “He became a believer, but his motivations originally were simply, we were getting our ass kicked by the Russians in the newspapers every day, and what do we do to respond.”
Stone also reveals President Kennedy at one point proposed the U.S. and Soviet Union set aside their rivalry and work jointly on a moon landing mission. Then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev first rejected the idea, the film says; by the time Khrushchev changed his mind, Kennedy had been assassinated and the cooperative opportunity was lost. Stone fleshed out the story through a remarkable interview he did with Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, a rocket engineer by training, who died in June at age 84.
“He was by his father’s side as his closest advisor throughout this entire period in the early Space Race, and he’d never really been interviewed about that,” Stone comments. “What he had to say was just extraordinary, so he was wonderful to really have that first-person perspective on what things looked like from the Soviet side.”
Chasing the Moon sheds light on one of the very few women to work in NASA’s Apollo program, engineer Poppy Northcutt, and the overlooked career of Ed Dwight, NASA’s “first Black astronaut candidate.” JFK supported Dwight’s participation in the Apollo training program, the film says, but the documentary suggests the entrenched racism of some white colleagues denied Dwight the chance to achieve his dream of taking part in an Apollo flight.
“That story has been completely lost to history,” Stone notes. “Since the film came out [Dwight] has been getting a lot of attention. His story’s really come to life again.”
Chasing the Moon marks the third time Stone’s work has been nominated in the Emmy’s Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category, the sole juried award in the nonfiction field. To be nominated a film must be judged to show “profound social impact, significant innovation of form, [and/or] remarkable mastery of filmmaking technique.” Would-be honorees also have to submit a statement outlining the merits of their film.
“I had to write an essay explaining what’s unique about the film,” Stone confirms, “what my process was, and why I think it deserves award recognition…and the things I brought to bear to make this a unique program.”
Stone’s literary efforts didn’t end there. He wrote a companion book for his documentary, co-authored by Alan Andres, Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America Into the Space Age.
Stone’s expertise in the subject matter makes him well suited to addressing the lingering question of whether the United States of today could pull off the kind of astounding feat it did in that summer 51 years ago. Some might argue the political divisions today make it almost impossible for our society to accomplish something on such a grand scale.
“It’s important to remember that we were perhaps even more divided as a nation in the 1960s when we were going to the moon than we are even today… But we’re not united as a nation because we haven’t set any national goals,” Stone observes. “That is one of the lessons—that no matter how divided we are, if we’re given proper leadership we can unite around a common goal. But it really does take leadership, and that’s what we’re missing now. People need to be pointed in the direction. People do want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”