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Moon Shivers

July 10, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

With those immortal words, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the ghostly lunar surface, becoming the first man to walk on the moon. It was July 20, 1969, and the whole world sat enraptured in front of TV sets as the haunting black-and-white images were beamed back to Earth. But few knew the real story behind America's 10-year race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

Until now.

"Moon Shot," a four-hour TBS documentary, chronicles the fierce competition between the United States and the U.S.S.R. to put a man on the moon. The stories of two of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, Alan Shepard and the late Deke Slayton, explore the complexities and difficulties of the mission from their personal perspectives. Both Shepard and Slayton traveled in space and were grounded for several years because of health problems.

"Moon Shot" features never-before-seen footage, archival photos from NASA and from personal collections of astronauts along with interviews with the astronauts attached to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects. The special is based on the new Turner Publishing book of the same name written by Shepard, Slayton and Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict. Barry Corbin, who plays astronaut Maurice Minifield on CBS' "Northern Exposure," narrates.

Kirk Wolfinger, the producer and director of "Moon Shot," discussed the making of the documentary with Times Staff Writer Susan King.

There are so many amazing stories in the documentary, especially about all the near-misses in space. Were they public record?

All the stories of what happened in space were a matter of public record, but nobody ever talked about it--the near-mishaps, the near-accidents and the guys who almost didn't make it back, especially in the early Mercury days. If you read the articles closely in the newspapers, you'd get the details of that, but you had to really read for it. It's like we didn't want to tarnish the National Aeronautics and Space Adminsitration's reputation when everything else in the world looked so bad. NASA was this kind of shining beacon.

These guys were test pilots, so their attitude was, "It's part of the business, why talk about it?" It's only now when they are 65 and 70 years old that they are beginning to say to themselves, "What the hell? It's a good story. We might as well tell it."

You realize watching "Moon Shot" just how heroic these astronauts were.

Absolutely. I think these guys, whatever else gets said about them, for all their personal antics and test-pilot machismo, were real heroes. That took a lot of guts to climb on top of one of those rockets, especially when you didn't know whether it was going to go up or down. John Glenn, that guy was really brave. When he sat on top of that Atlas rocket, it had a one-in-four chance of going up. I think that's pretty amazing.

They had no idea what they were getting into, none of them. They were test pilots and this looked liked the hottest ride going. They said, "That's where I want to be and if I'm going to be there I want to be first." These guys were real heroes. It was a time we liked heroes. We just loved having heroes. While I think they were overwhelmed by (celebrity) at first, I don't think there wasn't a one of them who said, "I can get used to this."

Where did you obtain the extraordinary footage used in the documentary?

Almost all was gotten out of the Johnson Space Center. A lot of it has not been seen before. It simply has to do with the tack of the story that we took. When we started to talk about what story we wanted to do, I had had it up to here with the kind of "spiritually elevating all mankind, let's feel good about going into space" movie. I wanted to do something about who these guys were, what made them tick.

Not one of these guys started off with the idea they were doing this for all mankind. It's every man for himself: "I want to be the first man on the rocket." There was a tremendous spirit of camaraderie and getting the job done. They truly all really liked and respected each other, but, man, they were test pilots. They wanted that seat and that was the name of the game. Not one of them to this day will deny it.

These guys hate the movie "The Right Stuff" (based on Tom Wolfe's book). They think the movie is totally wrong. They were all pretty angry the way the story was unwound. I think because of that movie--and it was very fresh in their minds--these guys were telling me stories I don't think they otherwise would have told me. I think we got "the real stuff."

"Moon Shot" is seen through Deke Slayton's eyes. Since he died a year ago of cancer, how involved was he in the documentary before his death?

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