'America's Secret Space Heroes' Revealed in New Smithsonian Channel Series

smithsonian america's secret space hereos
The Smithsonian Channel series "America's Secret Space Heroes" premieres on Sunday, May 14 at 9 ET/PT. (Image credit: Smithsonian Channel via collectSPACE.com)

The first launch of NASA's Saturn V moon rocket, 50 years ago this November, did not fly with a crew. There were no astronauts seated atop the giant booster to become the face of the Apollo 4 mission and, as great an accomplishment as it was, there are few, if any people who worked the flight from the ground who rose to the public's attention.

A new television series premiering Sunday (May 14) seeks to correct for that and other space history oversights, some five decades later.

"When you watch a Saturn V launch and realize that you have invested part of your life, when you realize it's really going to work, the gratification level is outstanding," says Jim Odom in the debut episode of Smithsonian Channel's "America's Secret Space Heroes." [America's Secret Space Heroes Trailer: Saturn V Rocket]

Chances are, most viewers won't have heard of Odom. The chief of the engineering and test operations branch for the second stage of the Saturn V rocket, Odom is among the "secret" engineers that the series seeks to celebrate.

"They really are the unsung heroes of the space age," Tim Evans, executive producer for Smithsonian Channel, told collectSPACE. "They are the pioneers who literally made it possible for humanity to become a spacefaring species."

"We have heard about the astronauts and heard about the policymakers, and even heard a little bit about the people in Mission Control, but no one has talked to the engineers and technicians who actually made that possible," he said.

In its six parts, "America's Secret Space Heroes" explores the history behind some of the greatest space endeavors from the perspectives of the lesser known individuals who made them happen. Starting with the Saturn V, the series then devotes an hour each to the lunar module, space shuttle, International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and the Viking Mars missions.

"Those are the six that are iconic and everyone knows that they were the big steps forward, so that is what we based the episodes on," explained Evans. "NASA pointed us to top engineers for each of the programs and we spoke with the Smithsonian's space history staff, who are some of the best space historians in the world."

Donn Binns, senior project engineer for North American Aviation, as seen in "America's Secret Space Heroes." (Image credit: Smithsonian Channel)

In addition to Odom, the Saturn V-focused first episode also features interviews with propulsion engineer Myron Pessin; Don Brincka, director of test operations at Douglas Aircraft; and North American Aviation senior project engineer Donn Binns.

"It is amazing how long you can hold your breath," states Binns, describing the first launch of the Saturn V. "We had ignition on the second stage, the ignition was good and all our flight parameters were essentially perfect."

"After that, you know, I was able to breathe again," he says.

Not all of those featured on the show are unknown, at least not to those with even a passing interest in space history. Among the more recognizable interviewees are Apollo-era NASA public affairs official Ed Buckbee, who later founded U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and F-1 rocket engine project manager Sonny Morea, who was previously featured in the Science Channel series "Moon Machines."

"I do not think they see themselves as overlooked, but this part of the story hasn't been told," said Evans. "So many of the engineers and technicians have not told this story on television before."

Author and historian Andrew Chaikin, whose book "A Man on the Moon" served as the basis for the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," is also interviewed, offering context to the engineers' stories.

"We are hoping we are going to reach an audience who are already space fans, already people who are aware of the importance of space travel, as well as, hopefully, a new generation of people who don't know much about the first space missions and who are looking toward the next," said Evans.

"America's Secret Space Heroes" premieres Sunday, May 14, 2017 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel.

Watch a clip from the first episode of "America's Secret Space Heroes" at collectSPACE.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.