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BBC Archive takes a trip to the moon

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Jim Sangster | 13:50 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

This week sees the start of a month of activities commemorating the first moon landings. You might have already caught James May on the Moon and there are more programmes lined up over the next few weeks. Tying in with this, I've just finished curating a collection of programmes for the BBC Archive site about how our relationship with the moon has developed in the last 50 years.
Presenters of the BBC's coverage of the first moon landings (from left to right): Patrick Moore, Cliff Michelmore and James Burke, standing in front of a large photograph of the moon

Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, space was part of my childhood. I never knew a time when astronauts hadn't been on the moon. We had Doctor Who, UFO and The Clangers and everyone knew the sound of a spaceman speaking to their guy in mission control. ('Beep!'). I'm a few years younger than the Apollo moon missions; by the time I was old enough to know what was going on, they'd already come to an end. It's something James May addresses in James May on the Moon, and it's one that nags away at all of the surviving astronauts too - when are we going back there?

I first spoke to Paul King, the producer / director of James May on the Moon, back in April when I was beginning to compile a list of older archive gems for our Moon Landings collection. Paul had suggested some of the programmes we were looking at, and happened to mention that he'd recorded interviews with three of the Apollo astronauts, but that as he'd had to cut most of the material out of his final programme, he might be able to give us his off-cuts. 'Did you speak to Neil Armstrong?' I asked. 'No, but we got Charlie Duke,' said Paul. I wasn't really sure which one Charlie was to be honest, but that was before I spent a week wading through the footage and getting to know him, and Alan Bean and 'second-to-last-man-on-the-moon' Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt. I'm now a bit of a fan.

The three astronauts each have a different approach to their experiences, and each of them had a compelling story to tell.

Apollo astronaut Alan Bean shows off his artwork to James MayAlan Bean was already an amateur painter when he went to the moon, and has dedicated the rest of his life to documenting his experiences in paint. He's passionate about his art - both in the way he compiles his pieces through the addition of bits of moon dust and scraps of spacesuit as well as his unique boast that he's the only artist in human history to go to the moon.

Harrison Schmitt, as one of the final two Apollo astronauts, feels he's something of a custodian. Through his calm, considered, statesmanlike persona, you can sense an impatience in him to see the next generation of lunar astronauts, in which he hopes NASA will continue to play an integral role.

And then there's Charlie Duke, who, despite being in his seventies now, still has a youthful enthusiasm. It's lovely to see him illustrate his lunar journey with a model lunar module, unconsciously mirroring the actions of generations of children back on Earth who played with toy replicas and dreamed of being astronauts themselves.

I never got to be an astronaut, but I never lost my admiration for the real ones. In this collection, I wanted to represent some of the BBC people who I found so fascinating as a child. There's Patrick Moore of course. We've been able to include a few editions of The Sky at Night, including one from 1960 where Patrick announces, with almost palpable disappointment, that there's no life on that rock up there. Patrick joins another TV hero, James Burke, for the BBC's coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, represented here thanks to a compilation of various surviving assets edited together by my colleague Paul Vanezis. Now, thanks to the three interviews from James May on the Moon, we managed to combine the old and the new, bringing the collection completely up to date.

The archive continues to help us make historical events immediate and relevant, and occasionally it gives us the chance to consort with people we've personally regarded as broadcasting heroes. Three days after the Moon Landings collection was released, we received a call from Reg Turnill. He worked for the BBC for nearly 50 years as correspondent on all things space. Anyone who grew up watching Newsround or Blue Peter would recognise him from his various reports over the years. He had a skill in making the incomprehensible instantly accessible. I'd wager it's his voice we hear in our minds every time we hear the word Skylab. Reg had stumbled across our collection thanks to three news reports of his that we'd included, and wanted to offer a small correction as I'd misspelled the name of the astronaut Don Lind. Don's name didn't appear in the original paperwork for the item, nor in our programme database, so thanks to Reg, I was able to amend that programme page and our database. He's 94 years old, he's still contributing to the BBC archive.

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