The moon comes into focus in the fourth episode of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff."
Now on Disney Plus, the docudrama series based on Tom Wolfe's 1979 book by the same title follows NASA and its original Mercury 7 astronauts as they race against the Soviets to put the first humans into space.
Warning: What follows contains spoilers for the episode "Advent." Skip ahead to the end of the article if you only want to read about the space history portrayed.
Episode 4: 'Advent'
"For the first time in the history of human civilization, pictures have been taken on the hidden side of the moon."
The episode opens with the view inside a Soviet robotic probe, Luna 3, in orbit around the moon. A film roll is seen being scanned as a news commentator's voice is heard describing the feat. It is October 1959, three months after the failure of NASA's Mercury-Atlas 1 launch.
Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) is seated in a Mercury spacecraft simulator with Deke Slayton (Micah Stock) serving as his capsule communicator, or capcom. "Trajectory off-nominal. Engine performance low," Slayton says, as a string of red lights begin to flash on his console accompanied by the buzz of an alarm. "Abort."
"Roger, activating abort handle," replies Cooper, but he cannot get the handle to move. The simulation ends. Slayton wants to know "why the hell didn't you abort?"
"I tried!" says Cooper, ripping the abort handle out of the simulator and handing it to Slayton. "It's not like we're actually flying this damn thing."
Building Project Mercury: Test Flight Photos of NASA's First Spaceship
Elsewhere, Space Task Group director Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and flight director Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) are debating the merits of adding another test launch before the upcoming holidays. Gilruth sides with the advice of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed the Redstone rocket that will launch the first astronaut into space and who is advocating for the additional attempt. "He's a Nazi and I don't trust him," says Kraft. Gilruth defends von Braun, describing him as central to NASA winning the space race.
"The Russians are lapping us in this race, and we've got a lot of catching up to do," says Gilruth.
Arriving back at his office, Gilruth (still with Kraft) is surprised to find the Mercury astronauts waiting for him. The men are upset with the lack of control they have when flying the spacecraft. Kraft shows them a black and white photo of the moon. "The far side," says Gilruth, explaining it is from Luna 3. "This program will go away if we don't catch up with the Russians," says Kraft, rebuking the astronauts' demands for making changes to the capsule.
Later, Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) and nurse Dee O'Hara (Kaley Ronayne) visit a toy store to pick out gifts for his two daughters and his niece. "Louise's sister died, her daughter is staying with us," Shepard explains. "She is going to need a lot more than just a Barbie," O'Hara says.
Louise Shepard (Shannon Lucio) picks up her niece, Judith (Ella Paige), at the bus station to bring her home.
Kraft comes to von Braun's (Sacha Seberg) hotel room to check on the status of the rocket for the next day's launch attempt. Weather has already delayed several tries. Von Braun, meanwhile, is getting suited up in a Santa Claus costume.
The next morning, the Mercury-Redstone 1 rocket is standing poised for launch on Pad 5 as von Braun and his team staff the blockhouse and Kraft and his flight controllers monitor the countdown from inside Mercury Mission Control. The final seconds tick down and at T-minus zero there is a plume of smoke but instead of the Redstone lifting off, the rocket remains stationary while the Mercury capsule's launch escape tower fires off.
"We see the abort system activated the escape tower, but the booster is still on the pad. It is still powered up, it's just sitting there!" Glynn Lunney (Jackson Pace) tells Kraft.
Kraft calls the blockhouse, but only hears German in response. Roy Hutmacher (Joshua Ritter), who is listening in on his headset, tells Kraft, "they are looking for a gun." Kraft drops his own headset and runs out of mission control.
Now in a jeep, Kraft is racing toward Launch Complex 5, where the Redstone is still fuming and the parachute from the still-attached Mercury capsule is deployed and hanging off the side. "Get out of the way!" yells Kraft as he tears past a guard station. Pulling up to the blockhouse beside the pad, Kraft sees someone headed for the rocket with a rifle. "Oh no!" yells Kraft.
Kraft jumps from the jeep and runs full speed at the man with the gun. "Stop!" he yells just before tackling the would-be shooter. "What the hell are you thinking?!?" Kraft yells at the men in the blockhouse.
"The rocket is fully fueled and the self-destruct charges are armed. Shooting holes in the booster will relieve the pressure and prevent the whole thing from exploding," von Braun calmly explains. "Unless it explodes when you shoot it," Kraft, still upset, replies. Kraft recommends doing nothing, letting the battery run down and the propellant's oxidizer to boil off, a process that will take 12 hours.
At the train station arriving home for the holidays, the Mercury astronauts are mobbed by the press and the public. A woman hands Cooper a red envelope and walks away with a smile. He chases after her and, indicating that he knows her, asks what she is doing there. "Just read the card," she says and leaves Cooper to sign autographs for a group of children waiting for him.
Later, after reading the card on his cab ride home, Cooper stuffs it into a trash can outside his garage.
Inside the Shepards' home, Louise informs Alan that Judith is now to be called by a different name. "We've decided to call her Martha. Judith is too close to Julie," Louise says, gesturing toward his daughter Julie.
John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) and his wife Annie (Nora Zehetner) are exercising together in their living room while discussing the upcoming presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and the state of the space program. Annie encourages Glenn to get Kennedy to support NASA.
Trudy Cooper (Eloise Mumford) takes out the trash when she discovers the card that Gordon earlier ripped in half and tossed away. Inside, there is a handwritten note that reads, "Little Creek Motel, Room 214, Until Christmas, Please come!" It is signed "L" with a heart.
Glenn works down a list of congressmen and other contacts, calling them in his effort to get in touch with Kennedy, but comes up empty.
Alan Shepard's parents, Alan B. "Bart" Shepard, Sr. (Fredric Lehne) and Pauline Renza (Sallie Glaner) come over for Christmas Eve. Bart is critical of the decision to rename Martha and physically disciplines her when she puts her elbow on the dinner table. "This is my house, dad, I'll handle the discipline," Shepard says.
Bart continues to give Shepard a hard time. "You know what I think, dad?" Shepard says, as he slams both of his elbows down on the table, "I think you're jealous. Yeah, what I am doing now is more important than anything you've ever done." Bart replies, "You haven't done anything. Your little space program has never been more than an empty shell and now it has turned into a punchline. The Russians are flying clear to the moon. You guys can't even get a rocket off the ground."
Cooper tells Trudy that he is heading out to find a Christmas tree, but she appears skeptical that he is telling the truth.
Unable to meet up with his family due to the weather, Slayton heads to the Starlite Lounge, where he finds von Braun. von Braun criticizes Kraft, who he says will never understand what went wrong with the Redstone launch and blames it on the capsule. He then tells Slayton that Kraft secretly wants to be the pilot, but because one of his hands is deformed, he is grounded. "So now he insists on piloting the capsule from Mercury Mission Control," says von Braun.
The woman from the train station answers a knock at her hotel door. She is expecting Cooper, but it is Trudy instead. "Tell me how you thought this would go, Lurleen," says Trudy, revealing that "L" is the same woman who, at just the mention of her name, caused Cooper to punch a reporter. After Lurleen (Elizabeth Blackmore) explains that her husband left her and her parents took in the kids but rejected her, Trudy realizes that Lurleen is looking for Cooper's support and instead writes her out a $500 check. "At least you won't go home empty handed."
Lurleen, who had an affair with Cooper before he became an astronaut, criticizes Trudy for being a pilot and a "trophy" for Cooper, who never wanted to support him, but rather "be him." The two trade barbs over who is right for Cooper when the phone rings. Trudy picks up and hears Cooper. She hangs up and walks out.
At the Pad 5 blockhouse, Kraft is analyzing lines of data when Slayton shows up. Kraft has not found an answer for what went wrong with the Mercury-Redstone 1 launch. Slayton relays what von Braun said about Kraft wanting to fly the capsule from the ground. "I dropped my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a trash fire when I was three. Burned my hand to a crisp trying to pull it out," admits Kraft. "Von Braun is right; the Navy rejected me from flight training. I guess the guy has me all figured out."
Slayton holds up his left hand in response. Most of his ring finger is missing. "Caught it in a hay mower when I was five. Only one you can lose and still be a pilot," he tells Kraft. "Screw von Braun. Never liked that Nazi anyway. He's getting soaked at a bar in a Santa Claus beard while you're out here working. I tell you who'd I rather have as a wingman."
Robert Kennedy calls Glenn at home. "Bobby, listen, let's say your brother gets the nomination. Does he want to win Ohio in the fall?"
Trudy arrives home to find Cooper waiting. She admits to going to the hotel and challenges his intentions. "Trudy I didn't get you back so I could go to space. It is the other way around," Cooper says. "The first thing I thought when I got that call from NASA was maybe, just maybe this might give me one last shot with you. So yes, I love you."
On Christmas morning, Shepard shows Martha how to raise the American flag and asks her to do it going forward. "I don't want you to call me Martha. I want to choose my own name," she says. After suggesting "Alan," she accepts Shepard's alternative, Alice. "Good to meet you Alice," says Shepard, which prompts her to give him a hug.
It is New Year's Eve and the Mercury astronauts and their wives are at a party. Glenn confides to Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) that Kennedy is coming to the party, but "keep it under your hat, I want it to be a surprise when he shows up." As soon as Glenn walks away, Carpenter tells his wife, Rene (Jade Albany Pietrantonio). The party is going full swing when a motorcade pulls up to the front, but instead of it being for Kennedy (who was "unavoidably detained"), Jerome Wiesner (Todd Allen Durkin) gets out. "Kennedy's special advisor for all matters science" is there in the senator's place. "Did you invite this guy?" Gilruth, annoyed, asks Glenn.
The episode ends with a countdown ... to midnight and the start of 1960.
The right, wrong and real stuff
At the start of the episode, a disclaimer appears on screen: "This dramatization, although fictionalized, is based on actual events. Dialogue and certain events and characters have been created or altered for dramatic purposes."
Here is a look at some of the right, wrong and real stuff the fourth episode portrays:
- The moon orbits Earth in such a way that one side always faces away from the planet. The Soviet Union's Luna 3 probe took 29 photos, covering 70 percent of the far side of the moon, on Oct. 7, 1959. Attempts to transmit the images back to Earth began the next day, but were unsuccessful until the spacecraft came closer to the planet nine days later. The first time the photos were made public was on Oct. 27, 1960.
- The Mercury spacecraft simulator built for the series is based on the real simulator, which is on display today at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The abort handle was operated by pressing a button at its top and then rotating the handle to the left.
- Wernher von Braun's call for an additional Mercury test flight came after the second attempt at a successful launch, not before Mercury-Redstone 1.
- Von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party, a status he later said was forced given his position as the technical director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde, Germany. In his book "Flight" (Dutton, 2001), Kraft recalled holding "ill will" towards von Braun for the V-2 rocket during World War II, but wrote that his dislike for von Braun at NASA was based on the rocket scientist's ego.
- The photo that Kraft and Gilruth show the astronauts of the far side of the moon is one of the real-life photos returned by the Soviet Luna 3 probe.
- Louise Shepard's sister died in 1956, three years before the events that are portrayed in this episode. Initially, Judith and her two older brothers were sent to live with their grandparents, given their father's inability to care for them alone. The situation became untenable though, and Louise and Alan took Judith into their home (the brothers were sent to a boarding school). Judith's name was changed to Alice to avoid confusion with Julie Shepard, who was the same age.
- The Mercury-Redstone 1 (MR-1) launch was scheduled for 9 a.m., but on Nov. 21, 1960, a full month before Christmas. The footage Kraft watches on his console is the real footage from that day. The rocket actually lifted 4 inches (10 cm) off the ground before its engine shut off and it settled back down on the pad. As depicted, the capsule's escape rocket fired off and the spacecraft's parachutes deployed.
- Von Braun was not the launch (test) conductor as shown. That was Kurt Debus, a member of von Braun's team. It was Debus who suggested sending a man with a rifle to shoot holes in the booster to relieve the pressure. No actual gunman was sent out, though, and Kraft did not rush from Mercury Mission Control to tackle him. The idea was called off over comms between the blockhouse and the control center.
- The scene showing Kraft driving the jeep was filmed on location at the real Launch Complex 5, where a replica Mercury-Redstone rocket now stands. The scenes filmed in the blockhouse were also filmed at the Cape in the Complex 26 blockhouse, which is now part of the Air Force Space & Missile Museum.
- As depicted, the response to the launch failure was to do nothing and wait for the oxidizer to evaporate and the battery to discharge. The cause of the failure was traced back to an umbilical that was the wrong length, leading to it disconnecting at the wrong time.
- Cooper did have an affair with a married woman, which is what led to he and Trudy separating prior to him becoming an astronaut. The name "Lurleen Wilson" and the storyline presented in this episode were invented for the series.
- The first time that Glenn spoke with Bobby Kennedy was during a visit to the White House prior to his Mercury flight in 1962. Glenn did not try to influence John F. Kennedy in the lead up to the 1960 presidential election.
- Shepard's father is shown wearing his Army National Guard uniform. According to Shepard's biographer Neal Thompson in "Light This Candle" (Crown Publishers, 2004), Bart may have had initial reservations about his son entering the Navy, but he did voice his concern over Shepard derailing his military career to become a NASA astronaut.
- Kraft did burn his hand — both hands, in fact, and both of his knees — by reaching for his peanut butter and jelly sandwich when he was three. The town dump bordered his parent's yard and while watching a trash fire, he dropped the sandwich and then fell in when trying to retrieve it.
- Slayton did lose his ring finger to a horse-drawn hay mower while he was trying to help his father by cleaning off the sickle bar. In his book "Deke!" (Tom Doherty, 1995), Slayton recalled learning that, per the regulations, "the ring finger on your left hand (if you were right-handed; reverse it if you were left-handed) was the only finger you could have missing on either hand and be qualified as a pilot."
- Jerome Weisner was part of a task group that advised Kennedy to cancel Project Mercury and the human spaceflight program in favor of a stronger science agenda.
- The sparkler-topped, full-size Mercury capsule cake that chefs roll into the party hall is similar in style to the 900-pound capsule cake that Starlite Hotel owner Henri Landwirth arranged in celebration of Glenn's Mercury flight in 1962.
New episodes of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" will begin streaming on Disney+ every Friday through Nov. 20. Return to collectSPACE.com for weekly recaps.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
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.