Get ready for the moon landing’s 50th with these 10 TV programs


A cornucopia of space race documentaries greets the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Most will have John F. Kennedy saying that we choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy because it’s hard, and Neil Armstrong announcing “the Eagle has landed” and Walter Cronkite at a loss for words other than “Whew, boy” as he removes his glasses and shakes his head in smiling wonder. They will vary according to budget and length, degree of access, quality of footage, and the tastes of each network’s main demographic. Some focus tightly, others go wide. If you only see two of the titles listed below, I recommend CNN’s “Apollo 11,” for its poetical beauty, and “Chasing the Moon” on PBS, for its sprawling context; they are equally eloquent. But you could watch them all and find something new in each.

RELATED: 50 years later, TV is still enamored of the Apollo 11 moonwalk »

For the record:

6:35 p.m. June 26, 2019An earlier version of this post gave the wrong date for “Apollo: Missions to the Moon” on the National Geographic Channel. The correct date is Sun., July 7.

Best for Gear: “Apollo’s Moon Shot” (Sundays, Smithsonian Channel). Six-week series follows the Apollo flights to their 1974 finish – Moon Rover, we’re riding you in style – with an enthusiastic emphasis on gadgets and artifacts, including the last boots ever to walk on the moon. (There was an astronaut inside them.) Experts from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum comment cheerily. (Already in progress, but earlier episodes reappear on the schedule.)


Most Poetic: “Apollo 11” (CNN, Sun., June 23). This beautifully made, in-the-moment film feasts upon recently discovered large-format footage that brings new immediacy to old images. Made without narration or talking-head commentary, it leans largely on the recorded interplay between the astronauts and Mission Control, with the merest sprinkling of news-anchor chatter to guide the narrative when necessary. Subtler than most of the other programs, it’s also more immersive – events play out at length, with time to meditate upon them. An affecting group portrait of cool-headed people doing a job.

The One with a Pop Star: “The Day We Walked on the Moon” (Smithsonian Channel, Sun., July 7). Michael Collins is among the talking heads here, along with Queen guitarist/doctor of astrophysics Brian May, TV physicist Brian Cox and a plethora of old NASA hands in a documentary concentrating on the landing itself, and how, for a moment or two, it changed everything forever.

For the Project Apollo completist: “Apollo: Missions to the Moon” (National Geographic Channel, Sun., July 7). Not just Apollo 11 but all Apollos, 1 through 17, in one compact, two-hour film. Features “synchronization of 30-track audio from mission control,” among other avowed firsts.

Most All-Encompassing: “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” (PBS, Mon., July 8). Deep and thorough, detailed but never dull, this six-hour documentary plays across three nights, taking in the whole of the space race, from Sputnik to Tranquility Base. (Kennedy’s Sept. 1962 moon speech doesn’t come until an hour and a half into the first episode). A huge cast of characters bring alive the time and the project; more than passing attention is paid to the social and poetical context, amplifying the excitement of the space adventure. Infinite bonus points for including footage of Tom Lehrer singing his “Wernher von Braun.”

Looking Forward: “Back to the Moon” (PBS, Wed., July 10). It’s not over for humankind and the moon. This “NOVA” documentary looks at the growing knowledge about what’s up there (minerals, underground ice water) and plans for a more permanent lunar presence. Inspiring until pure science gives way to commercial exploitation, lunar land grabs and the juvenile fantasies of famous billionaires – you might live there one day, as an underpaid drone in a titanium mine.


The One with Rare Audio: “Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes” (History, Sun., July 14). Exclusive and rarely seen audio and video – including the Apollo 11 astronauts talking to Life magazine before and after the flight and, if you can stand to listen, the last words of the Apollo 1 as their capsule caught on fire in a ground test — is the hard selling point on this fact-filled, drama-pumped hour (“The mission is about to get exponentially more dangerous”). Alarming musical cues keep you alert and underline every crisis, of which there were more than you may remember or ever knew.

The One with Rare Audio Mimed by Actors: “8 Days: To the Moon and Back” (PBS, Wed., July 17). Live actors in space suits mime weightlessness and lip sync actual audio from the Apollo 11 cockpit and landing module in a sort of sober version of “Drunk History,” co-produced with the BBC. It’s strange at first, then surprisingly effective and intimate, letting you concentrate on their words without distraction, and allowing for conversations other documentaries might discount as banal, but feel refreshingly human. (“Is it just me or is it a little on the chilly side in the cabin?” “”Feels comfortable to me.” “Would you like a little warmer, anybody?” “Well, my feet are a little chilly.”)

Starring the Moon (If That’s Not an Oxymoron): “Wonders of the Moon” (BBC America, Fri., July 19). The moon was there before we went, improving the lives of humans in poetical and practical ways, and it will be there after we’re (entirely) gone.This pretty, globe-trotting, skyward-looking documentary considers various lunar phenomena and influences, including eclipses, tides and “supermoons.”

Landing on the Actual Anniversary: “Moon Landing Live” (BBC America, Sat., July 20). News and NASA archives are sourced for that “you are there” feeling.

‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’

Where: National Geographic

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

‘American Experience: Chasing the Moon’

Where: KOCE

When: (Parts 1, 2 and 3) 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

‘Apollo: Back to the Moon’

Where: National Geographic

When: (Parts 1 and 2) 6 and 7 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

‘Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes’

Where: History

When: 10 p.m. Sunday, July 14

‘8 Days: To the Moon and Back’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 17

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)

‘Wonders of the Moon’

Where: BBC America

When: 10 p.m. Friday, July 19

Rating: Not rated

‘Apollo 11’

Where: CNN

When: 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 20

Rating: (G)

‘Moon Landing Live’

Where: BBC America

When: 9 p.m. Saturday, July 20

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)