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Narration-Free Apollo 11 Documentary Put Viewers in the Thick of It

Four new clips from National Geographic's "Apollo: Missions to the Moon," which airs at 9 p.m. EDT tonight (July 7), tell the story, without narration, of Apollo 11's historic human moon landing 50 years ago. 

The production team made a deliberate decision to tell the story without narration, to make the audience feel more immersed, director Tom Jennings told Space.com.

"What we wanted to do is create a time machine through film," Jennings said, "to take people back in time — people who, perhaps, were alive then and don't remember a lot of what went on and people who were too young to remember [now] — so that they could experience that almost in real time."

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing Mission

"The audience is waiting [for a narrator] to come in and save them, and the narrator never shows up," Jennings said. "It becomes very engaging, and it draws you in, in a way that other documentaries don't. And if we've done our job by the end, the audience will feel, 'Oh, I really get an understanding of what it was like.'"

Four clips shared with Space.com by National Geographic show how this approach plays out.

The first clip shows the Apollo 11 astronauts preparing to separate their lander, the lunar module, from the orbiting command module. Astronaut Michael Collins, remaining behind in orbit, advises his crewmates to take it easy on the lunar surface: "If I hear you huffing and puffing, I'm going to start bitching at you," he jokes.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin execute the separation and begin their descent, only to have their flow interrupted by a program alarm, called a "1202," which nearly prevents the landing. Calling down to mission control, Armstrong says, "Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm," and the answer from the ground is that the computer is temporarily overloaded. As long as that alarm doesn't repeat, mission control says, the astronauts can safely land.

The second clip shows footage of Armstrong descending to the moon as ABC news anchor Jules Bergman excitedly narrates. "There he is, as the foot goes down the steps," Bergman says. Brief pictures and videos show large groups of people watching, some on their feet in large buildings, others observing while seated in their living rooms.

Armstrong makes his first step and says, "It has a stark beauty all its own, like much of the high desert of the United States." Next, Armstrong guides down Aldrin so his crewmate can make his own first step. "Isn't that something? Magnificent sight out here." Aldrin responds, "Magnificent desolation." The two men then set up the U.S. flag, shown on video from the empty lunar lander.

The third clip shows the Apollo 12 crew lifting off from Earth and making their own descent to the surface, just three months after Apollo 11. Over footage of Apollo 12 touching down, a broadcaster comments, "It's all happened before, so why get all excited this time? For Apollo 11, everything stopped. Apollo 12, far less interest. So easily does the human mind accept the impossible — a man on the moon."

Once the Apollo 12 astronauts stepped out on the surface, they struggled to work their TV camera and eventually had to abandon the idea of video. This technological hiccup received criticism from (among other people) comedian Bob Hope. "You can't find a TV repairman who does house calls," he said on stage.

The fourth clip shows the Apollo 13 crew, in April 1970, wrapping up a planned TV broadcast to Earth while en route to the moon. "This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening," Cmdr. Jim Lovell says, "and we're just about to close out our inspection of [lunar module] Aquarius and get back to a pleasant evening in the [command module] Odyssey."

With the broadcast finished, NASA asks the crew to stir their cryogenic (hydrogen and oxygen) tanks, a routine procedure meant to prevent the gases from settling into layers in space. Suddenly, alarms blare on the spacecraft. "OK, Houston, we've had a problem here," says command module pilot Jack Swigert. As the crew and ground grapple with the explosion that eventually forced the abort of the lunar landing and a return to Earth, a reassuring instruction comes from the ground: "OK, stand by, 13. We're looking at it."

While speaking with Space.com, Jennings said the team deliberately selected footage that would allow the audience to see Apollo 11 with fresh eyes. 

"We went to places like the small television stations in Cocoa Beach, Florida, or in Houston, Texas, or in my home state of Ohio. They have a great television archive there," he said. "And so we used a lot of footage out of Dayton, which is home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the Wright brothers were from — so it's connected with flight at NASA.

"Some places have tremendous collections," he added, "and other places not so much. They've thrown it out, they've taped over it, people have taken the tapes home with them over the years. We drove a very wide net and have hundreds, if not thousands of hours of footage to go through. We figure out how best to tell the story and then try to see if we've got footage that will tell that story and [find out] what are the surprises along the way."

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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