When I was a little boy, nothing fascinated me as much as the space program. I still recall when my third grade teacher wheeled a black and white Zenith television into our classroom so we could all watch Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. Next, we watched John Glenn launch from Cape Canaveral, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. For us, this was something to expect as a part of our lives. We’d all been born at about the same time as America’s first satellite, Explorer I, launched into orbit. That was January 1958.
Life magazine still came out monthly at the time, and every so often there was a beautiful shot taken in space during one of the many missions that started with project Mercury, then Gemini and finally, Apollo. I vividly remember the cover that featured astronaut Ed White walking in space. It was in glorious color, taken with a Hasselblad camera. Back then, we all had to wait for the astronauts to return to Earth and for the film to be developed. That was in 1965.
As a kid who never missed an episode of “The Jetsons,” those photos of Ed White made the cartoon show seem more like real life. I dreamed that maybe one day, I’d go to work at Spacely’s Space Sprockets. The thought wasn’t as unbelievable to me as it may have sounded to some because my father spent his entire career in the aerospace industry. He worked at Northrop from 1953 to 1990 — spanning the Cold War and the space race. Despite the moon being millions of miles away, for me, it was as close as my father’s place on the breakfast table.
In July 1965, he woke me up early and we drove to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We’re going to watch the first pictures ever taken from Mars,” he told me. The way I’ve told the story through the years was that I watched as a glorious black and white image appeared on a very large screen at JPL’s Mission Control. Well, that was true — to a degree.
Since working on “Blue Sky Metropolis,” a four-part documentary on the role of Southern California in getting mankind to space, I have found myself revisiting many childhood memories, coming back to these rosy recollections and creating a more clear-eyed version of those heady early days of the space race.
See the birth of the aviation and aerospace industry in Southern California on the four-part documentary series “Blue Sky Metropolis.” Watch a preview.
For starters, I learned the truth of that July 1965 day, when my nine-year-old self first saw Mars on-screen thanks to the Mariner IV mission. It had taken scientists and engineers about nine hours to assemble the data that had been sent to them by the Mariner IV probe into a photograph. I wasn’t watching a live stream (in today’s parlance), but a painstakingly rendered picture created from numbers that represented shades of black, white and gray on a scale. Now I sound like an engineer.
Despite this dose of reality in my adult life, it doesn’t take away the real sense of awe emanating from everyone as they gazed at that square filled with craters large and small. Brilliant adults had the same expression on their faces that I had on mine; an expression that said: “WOW! I’m looking at the first picture ever taken of another planet!”
I reconnected with my childhood fascination throughout the production of “Blue Sky Metropolis.” I learned that my Southern California home really was the aviation and aerospace capital of the world. I interviewed nearly 70 people who either knew the history or had lived the rich history of this industry. Having made so many documentaries about icons of the Hollywood film industry, even I was surprised to learn that aviation/aerospace was the larger of the two “homegrown” businesses.
In the making of Episode 1, I learned about the historic industrial mobilization that took place here during World War II. Nearly 70% of the workforce at Douglas Aircraft was female because the men were off at war. I am especially proud to have told the nearly-forgotten story of black aviator William Powell. He created a flight school in Los Angeles for African Americans, some graduates becoming members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. For Episode 2, we discovered how much the Cold War shaped the development of modern Los Angeles. In Episode 3, we learned about a “parallel” military space program happening throughout the ‘60s. Finally, in Episode 4, we immersed ourselves in the exploding world of “New Space.” There are now more than 300 space companies in Los Angeles County.
In watching “Blue Sky Metropolis,” my hope is that fellow Baby Boomers will re-live an extraordinary part of their childhoods and also be introduced to a history that began before George and Jane Jetson. I want members of the Greatest Generation, that included my father, to be reminded of their contribution to saving the world from pure evil. Finally, I’d like millennials to experience a time before cell phones, texting and Netflix. I’m encouraged by the interest allgenerations have in this 50thanniversary of mankind’s greatest achievement. A young person told me after seeing the brilliant documentary “Apollo 11” that it all seemed to be taking place in the future, not fifty years ago. I hope “Blue Sky Metropolis” inspires the same sense of wonder at the possibilities presented by the future of space in Southern California, tempered with an appreciation of our role in space history in the making.