50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 | Wisconsin Historical Society


50th Anniversary of Apollo 11

A Giant Leap for the Wisconsin Historical Society

50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePresentation piece from Apollo 11 that will be on display in the exhibit

Presentation piece from Apollo 11 


The James W. Kitchell Papers: A Giant Leap for the Wisconsin Historical Society

 It is one thing to set a course with Congress.

It is another thing to set a course with the American people.

President John F. Kennedy first announced his goal of putting a man on the moon in a speech before Congress in May 1961. This moon-shot moment set into motion an ambitious space exploration program, and about 18 months later, Kennedy would rally the American people to shoot for the stars with an iconic speech at Rice University in Houston.

“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy said to a packed stadium. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Getting to the moon was not easy, but July 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first time humankind successfully set foot on the moon when Commander Neil Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”

And giant it was.

The task to get to the moon came with great pride and joy but also challenge, heartache . . . and death. The first manned test, on January 27, 1967 (retroactively named Apollo 1 by NASA), was a disaster on the ground, as a fire on the launchpad claimed the lives of three astronauts during a preflight test. Subsequent unmanned test flights ensured the safety and functionality of the Saturn V launch vehicle and other Apollo spacecraft. Apollo 7, in October 1968, was the first manned mission, and later missions continued to test gear, systems, and processes, essentially serving as dress rehearsals leading up to Apollo 11’s success.

As throngs of people across the nation and around the world watched Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin takes their first steps on the moon in July 1969, many were guided through the journey by James W. Kitchell, a major figure in television news for nearly five decades. The Wisconsin Historical Society’s Archives recently acquired the James W. Kitchell Papers, a collection that will immerse researchers in the space program and other key events of the second half of the 20th century.

Kitchell worked for NBC News for most of his career, primarily as a director and producer. Kitchell’s career highlights include directing and field-producing The Huntley-Brinkley Report; directing NBC’s coverage of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.; serving as executive producer of the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo; producing and directing for NBC every national political campaign, convention, and election from 1952 to 1976; and serving as vice chairman of broadcast for the pool coverage of President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

But Kitchell was best known, says Jonathan Nelson, collection development archivist, for producing NBC’s outstanding coverage of the U.S. space program, for which Kitchell won an Emmy Award in 1969. Kitchell was producer and director for the first telecast of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral and for NBC’s coverage of every American manned space flight from Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury flight through Apollo 12, and later the joint American-Russian space mission in 1975.

Leaving NBC in 1979, Kitchell moved to Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta, where he was responsible for the original design, development, construction, and production implementation of the Cable News Network (CNN), which debuted in June 1980. He was responsible for the management of the TBS-sponsored Goodwill Games in 1986, 1990, and 1994 as well as served as an operations executive for coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona and the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta before his retirement later that year.

“The papers of news producer James Kitchell are an important addition to the journalism and mass communications collections in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Archives,” says Nelson. “The collection documents both the process of covering live events for television news and the events themselves.”

The primary focus of the archives collection is Kitchell’s work covering the U.S. manned space flight program, including NASA documents and manuals, NBC planning documents and scripts, teletype news reports, photographs, motion picture films, and audiotapes. The collection includes especially good coverage of Apollo 8, Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and the joint American-Russian mission in 1975.

“The James Kitchell Papers contain many historically significant materials,” says Nelson, “but some of my favorites are a small American flag and mission patch carried to the moon by the Apollo 12 astronauts, the user’s manual for the Apollo lunar module, and a number of 70-millimeter color transparencies taken in space and on the moon.”

Other aspects of Kitchell’s career that are documented in the collection include coverage of the Olympics from 1988 to 1996, the Goodwill Games, Nixon’s trip to China, national political conventions between 1964 and 1976, and the early days of CNN.

James Kitchell’s mother, Alma Kitchell, was born in Superior, Wisconsin. During the 1930s and 1940s, says Nelson, she was a “women’s commentator” and singer on the NBC/Blue Radio Network in New York, with several programs of her own and thousands of appearances on the radio during her career.

The Society is grateful to the Kitchell family for entrusting this important collection to the Society’s Archives, where it will be available to researchers, from National History Day students to seasoned academics, now and well into the future.

The moon rock fragment, Wisconsin state flag, actual moon landing footage, photographs and more will all be on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum from July 17-20, 2019.