Space...the final frontier...this is the obvious joke by Judge Sandra Dozier. Her mission: to explore strange new DVDs, to watch them promptly, or at least as soon as she can, to boldly review what no man (at least on this site) has reviewed before!
"From the day that we were born, we were destined to be in this room on this day…No matter what happens to us this day, I will stand behind every decision you make. However it goes, when we walk out of this room, we walk out as a team."—Gene Krantz, on July 20, 1969, the day Apollo 11 launched
The History Channel has packaged its popular "Failure Is Not an Option" special, featuring legendary flight director Gene Krantz and his flight control crew, with three one-hour specials on the space program for a well-rounded package of documentaries about America's race to the moon.
Facts of the Case
Failure Is Not an Option is based on the book of the same name by flight director Gene Krantz, who was with NASA for several years and has been profiled in movies such as Apollo 13. As an integral part of the Gemini and Apollo missions, he was there for the buildup and the successful moonwalk achieved by the Apollo 11 crew. The documentary focuses on the space race from point of view of the flight control crew, discussing the pressure they felt to put a man on the moon, the grueling hours, the atmosphere in mission control, and the sorrow, pride, and elation they experienced at every turn of the program. The documentary also catches up with key flight control members for interviews and retrospectives. This is an excellent documentary that gives a good timeline of events and punctuates it with human stories. Grade: A
Code Name: Project Orion offers a fascinating look at a little-known, top-secret project to send humans to distant planets through the use of nuclear explosions as propellant for an enormous (ten-tory) rocket that would carry hundreds of people, supplies, and farm equipment to the far reaches of space. "To the moon by 1965, to Saturn by 1970" was their ambitious motto. Amazingly, they were able to go very far with the theory, and they were stopped only by an inability to solve the problem of dangerous fallout from the repeated explosions. Their research provided the groundwork for other modern-day solutions that use microwave energy and light to propel ships, rather than nuclear fission. Grade: A
The remaining two documentaries are from the Modern Marvels series of documentaries, so they focus more on the mechanics than on the people. While both are fascinating and in-depth, they seem a little sterile compared to the other documentaries in this collection, but they stand alone well enough to be effective complements.
Modern Marvels: The Space Shuttle presents a staggering amount of detail about the shuttle program mechanics, juxtaposed against a brief history of the race to the moon. What this really highlights is the extreme patience required for assembling the enormous spacecraft, and the precision and caution required to make sure everything goes well. Although this will be a delight to shuttle enthusiasts, the casual viewer will probably find the detail a little exhausting. The Challenger disaster, which has been covered thoroughly in other specials, is given only a brief summary here, and there is no follow-up history of what happened after the crash, so it feels a little incomplete at the end. Grade: B-
Modern Marvels: Apollo 13 covers the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. After losing half its oxygen and fuel, Apollo 13 is in danger of not reaching home again, and any hope of reaching the moon is lost forever. The incredible effort required to solve the oxygen problem and return the crew home safely is profiled here, with computer models to show the mechanics and the steps taken to solve the problem. This documentary features interviews with Gene Krantz, John Lovell, and other flight and crew members, and it is more balanced between the human and machine points of view, for a well-rounded documentary on the Apollo 13 mission. Grade: A-
I really can't put my finger on what is so moving about the American space program, but part of it is the idealism and determination of the engineers, astronauts, and flight crews. Obviously, the space race began because America wanted to prove its super-power status and wanted to beat the Russians, but it's the motivation of the everyday Joe who works toward that goal that gets to me. What motivates an otherwise sane man to go into an oxygen-free environment that will crush him like tissue paper if something goes wrong with the craft he is in? It can't be the money, and it can't be just the fame. How do you stay calm in mission control when the lives of human beings rest on the decisions you will make next? That's the kick in the guts that makes the space program so fascinating for so many.
The main draw of this two-disc collection will undoubtedly be the Failure Is Not an Option documentary with Gene Krantz, narrated by Scott Glenn. This is an interesting peek at the mission control side of the space race story. All-American Krantz gives the credit to his crew and to the astronauts they supported, and it is partly through this magnanimity that the viewer learns to respect and value his position as flight director. The sheer amount of historical footage in this documentary is amazing—even Krantz comments that he has never seen some of it; the viewer is taken through a time warp of sorts and immersed in the experience of those men in mission control.
The other specials provide interesting background information on the space race, as well, but I was particularly drawn in by Code Name: Orion. It explains much about the American culture to clarify why we actually thought we could send colonies into deep space as early as the 1950s. Watching footage of the experimental test model actually propelling itself straight up into the air is surreal, and seeing the modern-day microwave and light ships that are based on that old idea, is amazing. Science fiction is really becoming science fact.
The sole extra that comes with this set is the commentary by Krantz, writer-codirector Rushmore DeNooyer, and editor-coproducer Tony Bacon. It's a good commentary that goes into some of the stories they didn't end up putting on screen, some of the behind-the-scenes machinations, and so on. Krantz is given an opportunity to speak a little more casually about what led him to write the book and about his misgivings concerning the project when it began.
All of these documentary specials rely heavily on source material for visuals and even sound. Although the transfer quality and narration clarity are high, the source material isn't always as clear, but this is to be expected with historical footage. Overall, each special is highly watchable, with the clearest possible transfer. Mono sound is filtered to a 2.0 stereo track nicely, without being too loud or quiet, and the sound mix overall is even and robust.
The bottom line: For anyone interested in the space program, this is a great set at a good price.
The History Channel Presents: The Race to the Moon is allowed to skip stress test training today in light of this fine box set of documentary features.
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Studio: History Channel
• Commentary on "Failure is Not an Option"
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