Home #Hwoodtimes KCET Original Documentary Miniseries ‘Blue Sky Metropolis’ Premieres Sunday July 14th at...

KCET Original Documentary Miniseries ‘Blue Sky Metropolis’ Premieres Sunday July 14th at 8pm on KCET

By Judy Shields

Photos: The Hollywood Times (Sterling S.)

Peter Jones

Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 7/11/2019 – “The community of Los Angeles emerging through this industry. The aviation aerospace industry really defined Southern California and they both shared this entrepreneurial spirit of we can do anything and we you can take a risk here and we don’t care if you fall on your face, just get up and try something else! Taking another look at my hometown using this industry as our way to look at all kinds of issues, gender, environment, race relations, all of it. I use the industry as basically a way to tell the history of Los Angeles.”  Peter Jones, Director of the miniseries Blue Sky Metropolis told The Hollywood Times during a phone interview.

Tuesday night PBS ‘Summer of Space’ had a premier event at The Huntington, which featured the world premiere Sneak Peek of the new KCET Miniseries Blue Sky Metropolis, follwing California’s Aerospace History, Plus First Looks at NOVA and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Programming Celebrating Moon Landing Anniversary.

(L-R) Los Angeles Times Journalist Ralph Vartabedian (Moderator); filmmaker Peter Jones, VP of Space Systems Division for Northrop Grumman Sarah Willoughby & Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (2001-2016) Dr. Charles Elachi

A panel discussion followed with various talent from BLUE SKY METROPOLIS that included filmmaker Peter Jones, Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (2001-2016) Dr. Charles Elachi, VP of Space Systems Division for Northrop Grumman Sarah Willoughby and Los Angeles Times Journalist Ralph Vartabedian (Moderator).


KCET Summer of Space intro with Andy Russell President & CEO Public Media Group of SoCal

Guests were welcomed by Public Media Group of Southern California President and CEO Andrew Russell and treated to clips from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Chasing the Moon and NOVA: The Planets as well as a first look at the KCET Original documentary miniseries BLUE SKY METROPOLIS that premieres Sunday, July 14 at 8pm on KCET with streaming on kcet.org/bluesky and on the free PBS App.

The new documentary miniseries is a 21st century story that looks at the past, present and future of aerospace in Southern California from multiple perspectives including science, culture, politics, race, business, labor, environment and gender.

KCET Summer of Space event reception

Following the screening and panel, guests enjoyed a champagne dessert reception featuring a timeline of significant moments in space/aerospace history as well as display models of the B-2 Spirit, E-2D Advance Hawkeye, Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope provided by Northrop Grumman.

B-2 Spirit Model
E-2D Advance Hawkeye

It was really cool to be able to see these models and think of their history!

Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) Payload Satellite
James Webb Space Telescope

If you ever have a chance to see these models in person, do that. Google them to find out more about their history.

Marion Ross

Guests included Actress Marion Ross (Happy Days), BLUE SKY METROPOLIS Filmmaker Brian Tessier (Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times), Author Ken Richardson (Hughes After Howard), Author Wayne Biddle (Dark Side of the Moon), USC Professor & Author MG Lord (Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science), KCET’s SOCAL WANDERER Host Rosey Alvero, GLOBE TREKKER Host Brianna Barnes, Opera Singer & LA County Holiday Celebration Host Suzanna Guzman, Former Anchor of KCET’s SOCAL CONNECTED Val Zavala, The Huntington’s VP of Communications Susan Turner-Lowe and Former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook.

KCET put on another great premiere screening of a new mini-documentary series that will be airing this Sunday, July 14 at 8 p.m. I would have to say after being priviledged to be in the audience and see some of the footage of the ‘Blue Sky Metropolis,’ what a great opportunity to sit down with your kids and grandkids to show them about the space program, how we got to the moon, and rockets being built here in Southern California.  History in the making!  Maybe even do a history report with your kids for that extra credit in the next school year.

After seeing some of the rough cut footage of the first three episodes you don’t want to miss this great mini-series! It is well done with fantastic footage and memorable interviews of those involved in the aviation aerospace industry.  Peter Jones has done it again!

Interview with Peter Jones:

THT: How did you get involved in this documentary series?

Peter Jones: “I did a documentary a few years ago on the history of the Los Angeles Times and Chandler family that owned the paper and did that with KCET. I did an episode on American Masters on Johnny Carson and KCET was the presenting station for that. They came to me, which is very rare in our business and it was wonderful. They said would you be interested in doing a documentary on the history of aviation aerospace in Los Angeles. We have the resources to do it and that never happens and I said Yes! They didn’t realize my connection, because my father had spent his entire career in aviation aerospace. He was an engineer and then worked at Northrup and so I grew up around the industry itself.”

THT: Did you want to follow in your Father’s footsteps?

Peter Jones, (Photo provided by KCET)

Peter Jones: “Oh gosh no! My grandfather was an actor and he was a founder of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science and hosted the Oscar’s three times. I had more film business in my blood than aviation aerospace.  I have been doing documentaries on iconic legendary figures in entertainment most of my career. I did a lot of history of Hollywood stuff back for a network that was called American Movie Classics, AMC in Hollywood. That was a gig that I did pieces on the history of Hollywood and that was really more in my background. This coming up at this stage was sort of ironic and really remarkable because now I have gotten immersed in the two sort of family businesses.”

THT: You had that leg up, as they say.

Peter Jones: “You know what? I didn’t realize how much it would help, because I am not an aerospace engineer by temperament, I am more the artist creative type. I picked up so much as a kid just being around a lot of scientist, engineers, politicians and military personnel, so it did give me an insight that I didn’t know I had in me. When you are a little kid you absorb stuff that you are not even aware of.”

THT: How did the title come about?

Peter Jones: “The title came from an anthology of stories about aviation aerospace in Southern California called Blue Sky Metropolis, a book edited by Peter J. Westwick, a Professor at USC and he called his book ‘Blue Sky Metropolis’ and it’s also based on something my Dad always talked about was these blue sky meetings. When he would put engineers and scientist together with no agenda, but everything was on the table and you could bring up any idea and that is how the great things became actual airplanes and rockets because of these blue sky meetings. I never forgot that, so I said when I saw that title ‘Blue Sky Metropolis’ I wanted to also integrate the idea of a blue sky thinking that is what really created this Southern California entrepreneur spirit in the aviation aerospace business, the blue sky thinkers, the blue sky mentality, just meant the sky if the limit, so it really fit for me.”

THT: Did you happen to learn anything new after the making of this documentary?

Peter Jones: “Oh my gosh, like everything. I mentioned you have two industries, I didn’t realize Hollywood and aviation really came of age together. I was not as aware of how far back the aviation connection to southern California really went and it goes all the way back to 1910.  There was the city fathers, all men, created this event, Los Angeles International Air Meet in 1910 when the city population was around 35,000. They knew there was something about these flying machines and in the course of over 10 days, a quarter of a million people showed up, can you imagine the experience of watching something fly. You are born before the Civil War and a train is like a big deal, because it is not a horse and then you are watching something up there in the air! They were on to something, because this created this awareness of this new thing and the people here thought that there might be a real business around these airplanes. People originally thought of them as a side show entertainment for like thrill seekers and others thought they could turn this into an industry and use airplanes to transport goods and also in a military sense for dropping bombs in air to air combat. All of that came of age here at the same time that the motion picture industry did. There was a newsreel camera at that 1910 air meet.”

“On the first episode, we show that very first news reel of the air meet and the world saw all those flying machines for the first time. They associated it with this very small town out west called Los Angeles.”

THT: The history of this documentary is so fascinating, can you talk about that.

Peter Jones: “I know and because Hollywood is so publicity friendly and aerospace aviation is all confidentiality and top secret, so this is why you have an industry that was actually bigger than entertainment. The first year that entertainment passed aviation aerospace in terms of business was 1995. The rest of the century aviation aerospace was a bigger business than the Hollywood movie making machine. But Hollywood loves talking about itself, aviation aerospace, national security, I can’t tell you what I do for a living, son.”

THT: Can you talk about the Walt Disney film that he did about the war but didn’t get aired.

Peter Jones: Can you believe it, that was done early, like 1941 or 1942, but back then they were saying like look this is going to be how the war is going to be won or lost through air power and Disney made this film. It’s just the idea of doing an animated film where you see Tokyo getting bombed to smithereens, who is going to take their kids to see that?

THT: I didn’t even know that they made that animated film.

Peter Jones: “I didn’t either, I don’t believe it’s ever been shown.”

THT: Did you actually do the 60 interviews I read about?

Peter Jones: “70! We actually did a number of them a few weeks ago to fill in certain spots. Even though we did do only 60 we wound up doing about 10 more in the last couple of months to fill in the holes. I have never done that many for a project before. When you are doing a series, you are covering 100 and 10 or 20 years, it is a lot of ground to cover.”

THT: Seems like the interviewees liked being interviewed.

Peter Jones: “As you know, that makes for a better interview!

THT: This is a four-part documentary, correct?

Peter Jones: “Yes. In honor of this connection, I am naming each episode after a film. Episode one I am calling ‘Wings’ and that takes us from the 1910 air meet to the end of WWII and episode two is called ‘The Big Chill’ based on the Cold War and episode three is called ‘A Space Odyssey’ and then episode four is called ‘Back to the Future’ because this industry is reinventing itself every day here now with these companies of young entrepreneurs, many of them tech billionaires all when they were kids, loved watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and wondered now this could be their future. It didn’t work out that way, so they made their money in the tech industry but they all said what would we do if they all made a billion dollars, we would all start our own space company and that is what they did.”

“We were very fortunate with ‘The Back to the Future’ episode because it does have a happy ending. When the Cold War ended there was a devastating downturn here, we lost a half a million jobs, we had the riots, we had earthquakes and then suddenly this thing happened were you have these private investors who have these big dreams, Space X with Elon Musk and he created his headquarters in the old Northrup plant in Hawthorne and Richard Branson with his company Virgin Orbit, he created it where Douglas aircraft built planes during WWII. You realize these people could put their companies anywhere in the world but they still choose Southern California because this is where you have Caltech, UCLA, USC and you have this kind of feeder industry of educational institutions that provided personnel that would be hired by these companies.”

THT: Where do you think our space program is heading in the future?

Peter Jones: “If you listen to Elon Musk talk, you really believe him. Even though so many people said he was crazy, we have an astronaut named Garrett Reisman, in the fourth episode, where he tells kids, because Elon Musk launched last year a rocket called the Falcon Heavy, this is the one where he put his Tesla roadster into orbit, he put his car in orbit and really has made this look like it will be possible for us to go to Mars. I think it is possible and I have talked to many young people who work at Virgin Orbit and Space X and we interviewed a couple of guys who created a company called Relativity, where they are 3D printing rockets. It is crazy, we found out about Relativity a couple of months ago and I said we have to put this in there, these 20 something kids. They sent a cold email to Mark Cuban, the Shark Tank guy and he got right back to them and told them what they were doing is so cool, that he was going to invest and now they have 85 employees and 3D printing. They created the biggest 3D printer in the world, 3D printer rockets.

“Last Tuesday, this Falcon Heavy Rocket that Musk created at Space X deployed 24 satellites, because they can make satellites much smaller, so this rocket deployed 24 satellites in three different orbits and one of 24 was used for US air force surveillance satellite, the military is stilling going to be a big customer of these new space companies. The big point we make is that the military is always been the biggest consumer of aerospace rockets and weapons.”

THT: Did you happen to have a favorite part of this series?

Peter Jones: “I’m an architecture fan, I liked seeing how these companies, when we did begin to enter the space age, the companies engaged the services of real prominent architects in the mid-century era and created a really distinct kind of space age aerospace architectural vernacular that you really don’t see anywhere else in the country. Like TRW, Northrup called it’s company Nortronics and they just reeked of the future. These were built in the 50s and 60s and are so cool.

Interview with Panelist

Dr. Charles Elachi, Former Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“You cannot have a conversation with Voyager, I would say hello and you would have to wait 2 days to respond.”

He spoke about the golden disk on Voyager. “It is the record of what life looks like on Earth. The thinking is that in 10,000 years from now, some alien would capture it, they would know what Earth would look like.” He also mentioned that when they have kids who visit JPL, he tells them this is a disk, they look at him and have no idea what a disk is, they know what a cellphone is he said.

He also said it is pretty cool when you see all the different signals coming from different space crafts of different planets.

Peter Jones was asked what the particular anniversary that we are coming up on meant to him emotionally.

Peter Jones: “It makes me think of my father, because this was his industry and I was with him watching the moon launch in a bar in Bavaria as we were driving to Holland. I said we have to get somewhere where there is a television. I think it was 3:30 p.m. German time because I know it was 9:32 a.m. eastern time, now I sound like an engineer, I sound like my father’s son. So I had to see Apollo 11 launch and then we watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon.”

Dr. Charles Elachi: “ I was a student here at Caltech, so I was sitting down with my friends. As being scientists and engineers, it was amazing landing someone on the moon and remember that evening, walked out and looked at the moon, and said there is a person up there. I think the only time that kind of compared to that was when Curiosity on Mars, it was the same thing. Gave me goosebumps.”

Sarah Willoughby (VP of Space Systems Division of Northrop Grumman): “I love watching this old footage. The visual that goes with the rockets and sound and if you have ever been to a launch, the feeling right, it gets your whole chest vibrating, the power that goes with it. I am always impressed with the level of concern and intensity amongst the people in the run, how important it was, how aligned they were around a common cause and how everyone recognized the importance, that basically the world stopped to watch a man step on the moon.”

Another great question asked by a journalist was: What is it about keeping the moon in people’s consciousness, now that we all have our eyes fixed on Mars?

Sarah Willoughby: “I think it’s interesting because some people look at it and say we have already been there, why return. It’s an opportunity to have a stepping stone and work our way to other planets in the solar system. It allows us in today’s environment with the level of risk tolerance we are willing to accept to make progress in a meaningful way as we continue to mature some of those technologies and some near turn wins. Don’t under estimate how hard it is to get to the moon. It is absolutely mind boggling to me that we were able to make it there on slide rules. The power of the computer has transformed.”

Ralph Vartabedian (Moderator: Journalist at the Los Angeles Times) asked a great question: If we are going to go to Mars, don’t we have to get away from the sling shot approach that we’ve used. We need a direct flight with a very big engine.

Dr. Charles Elachi: “Basically we would send everything we need ahead of time. The only thing you would be sending is 5 humans. You cannot do it all at the same time, it is like when you are climbing Mt. Everest, you have putting camps and put supplies along the way.”

“It takes nine months each way to get to Mars, it would be two year trip. So you would have to be comfortable with your other five partners and be best friends.”

“We know that there is ice below the surface of Mars and that is critical item, that you can get water. Then you can grow things if you have water, you could live on Mars. Remember these things aren’t easy, they are not like the movies.”

Peter Jones: “My father worked in the industry and he so wanted to tell me about The Black Project, and The Black Project was the B2 Bomber and we would drive from LAX and we would point to a big building on Century Blvd and he would say we have 200 people working underground here and I can’t tell you anything about it. He was dying to tell me!”

LA Times Journalist Ralph Vartabedian & Blue Sky Metropolis filmmaker Peter Jones

Moderator Ralph Vartabedian asked a question of the panelist: Where were you when Apollo 11 took off?

Peter Jones: “Well, because my father sold airplanes around the world, sold a lot to the Dutch air force, he was very close friends with the royal family and on July 20, 1969, we were at Soestdijk Palace with Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard. I was 12 years old and we were having dinner and I said ‘they are going to walk about 3:30 in the morning and I have to see that.’ So a guy in a beautiful tuxedo woke me up and we all gathered in the Palace, which passed for a TV room, there was the Queen and prince in a bathrobe and her daughter Beatrix, the next queen and I am watching Neil Armstrong walking on the moon with the royal family of Holland.”

Ralph Vartabedian: “I don’t think anyone could top that”!

The audience erupted in laughter…

Sarah Willoughby: “I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parent’s eye.” Laughter again.

Ralph Vartabedian: “OK.”

Dr. Charles Elachi: “I was a few blocks from here. I was a student at Caltech and me and a number of other students were sitting in the student housing and we were watching the landing. It was really breathtaking. Particularly for being at Caltech, which as you saw is an originator of aerospace industry, founding JPL. Caltech, almost every airplane that was flying places, has history back to Van Carmen, mechanics and wind tunnels at Caltech, the combination was kind of unique. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, that lander was actually built in Los Angeles, not many people know the role that Los Angeles has played in that.”

Ralph Vartabedian: “I watched it the evening I was just graduating high school and getting ready for college and working for money. I had a job at the Chrysler assembly plant on the lower east side of Detroit. I finished up my shift on the assembly line, came home and watched two men walk on the moon, it is something I will never forget.”

Blue Sky Metropolis Panel Bios – Photos provided by KCET

Moderator: Ralph Vartabedian

Ralph Vartabedian

Ralph Vartabedian, a national correspondent at the Los Angeles Times, joined the newspaper in 1981. In his many reporting assignments, he has written on Toyota vehicle defects, presidential candidates, the New Orleans levee failures, the defense industry, the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation, nuclear weapons, tax collection abuses, and the California bullet train, among much else. He won the 2015 Gerald Ford Presidential Foundation award for defense writing, as well as Loeb awards in 1987 and 2010. He was also a Pulitzer finalist in 2010, among many other career recognitions. In 1989, the Delta Mu Delta honorary society at California Polytechnic University school of business gave Vartabedian a special award for integrity. He covered aerospace and defense issues for 10 years at The Times, covering the military buildup that preceded the end of the Cold War and its decline afterward. He spent five years as a Washington, D.C., reporter for the paper and then four years as the deputy business editor. He previously worked at the Minneapolis Star and the Kalamazoo Gazette. Vartabedian is married to Jeanne Wright, a freelance writer. Born in Detroit, he graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in economics and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. 

Panelist: Charles Elachi

Dr. Charles Elachi

Dr. Charles Elachi is Professor (Emeritus) of Electrical Engineering and Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology. From 2001 to 2016 he was the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Vice President of California Institute of Technology. During his 15-year tenure, he oversaw the development and operations of over 45 flight missions and instruments.

During his 16-year tenure as JPL Director; JPL launched 24 missions. He has been a principal investigator on a number of NASA-sponsored studies and flight projects including the Shuttle Imaging Radar series (Science Team Leader), the Magellan Imaging Radar (Team Member), the Cassini Titan Radar (Team Leader) and a Co-Investigator on the Europa Sounding Radar. He is the author of over 230 publications in the fields of active microwave remote sensing and electromagnetic theory, and he holds several patents in those fields.

He is the Chair of the St. Exupery Innovation Council in Toulouse France, Member of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency International Advisory Council, a member of the Commission on DOE National Laboratories, a member of the Visiting Committee for the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, the past chair and current member of the UCLA Sciences Board of Visitors, a past member of the Huntington Hospital Board of Trustees in Pasadena, the past chair and member of the Lebanese American University Board of Trustees New York and Beirut, a member of the International Advisory Board of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Saudi Arabia, a past member of the International Advisory Council of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia and a member of the International Advisory Board of the University Oman. He was a member of the University of Arizona Engineering School Advisory Committee and the Boston University Center of Remote Sensing Advisory Council.

In 1989 Dr. Elachi was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and has served on a number of academy committees. Dr. Elachi has received numerous awards, including the Aviation Week Lifetime Achievement Award (2016), 2016 National Space Trophy, and many others including when way back in 1988 the L.A. Times selected him as one of “Southern California’s rising stars who will make a difference in L.A.”

In 1989 Asteroid 1982 SU was renamed 4116 Elachi in recognition of his contribution to planetary exploration while in 2019, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mission Control Center was named after Elachi in 2018.

Panelist: Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Peter Jones has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy® Award five times, winning twice: for his A&E Biography special Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow (1997), and for Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (2006). His Peabody Award-winning Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times (2009) premiered as a national primetime special on PBS, and Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (2012) remains the highest rated film in the 31-year history of the PBS series American Masters. Over the course of a decade, Peter Jones Productions created 85 profiles for A&E Biography, many written and directed by Jones. Peter is a graduate of Stanford (BA, American Studies) and Northwestern (Masters, Medill School of Journalism). He has twice been the recipient of the Producer of the Year Award from The Producers Guild of America.

Peter Jones began his career as a broadcast journalist. Jones served as a news and feature reporter for KVUE (ABC) in Austin, Texas; an anchor for WSLS (NBC) in Roanoke, Virginia; and an assignment editor for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. Jones won numerous honors, including several Outstanding Achievement Awards from United Press International and The Associated Press. 

Panelist: Sarah Willoughby

Sarah Willoughby

Sarah Willoughby is vice president and program manager, Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infra-Red (OPIR) Polar Program at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, a premier provider of military aircraft, autonomous and space systems and next-generation solutions to assist our customers worldwide, preserve freedom and advance human discovery. In this role, Sarah leads efforts to deliver highly capable, resilient, and defendable OPIR systems for the warfighter, working in partnership with the U.S. Air Force. She reports to Bob Mehltretter, vice president, Military and Civil Space Systems.

Previously, Sarah served as Chief Information Officer for Aerospace Systems in Enterprise Services. Prior to that she was vice president of Engineering, Sciences and Technology for the Western Region of the Mission Systems sector. Other assignments have included serving as program integration director for Advanced Mission Programs at Aerospace Systems, and deputy spacecraft manager on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope program.

Willoughby earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. She also earned a master’s and doctorate degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University.

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