Judge Dave Ryan thought America's Greatest Journey would involve substantially more Steve Perry.
That's one small step…
The Race to Space: America's Greatest Journey bills itself as a "ten-part documentary series." It's not. It's actually three David L. Wolper-made news specials from the early days of the space race, plus a 2009 documentary about Apollo 11, plus several NASA-made documentaries from the public domain. It's a mixed bag, to say the least. If you're looking for an authoritative history of the space program, move along. If, on the other hand, you're a die-hard space fanatic (like, say, myself), there are some interesting tidbits here and there in this two-disc package, making it arguably worth adding to your collection.
For space-heads, the three Wolper specials—1958's The Race for Space, 1959's Project: Man in Space, and 1964's Race for the Moon—are the main attraction. While there is an enormous amount of archival film and television material from the time of the moon landings (1969-1972) out there (indeed, some of it is included in this "ten-part documentary series"), there is actually very little documentary-style material available from the earliest days of the space race. The films themselves—the first two hosted by a young-looking Mike Wallace (60 Minutes), the latter narrated by Wallace's CBS co-worker Bill Stout—are actually quite well made, but they are heavily pitched towards addressing the interests of American viewers of their times. The Race for Space, to pick one example, seems mainly concerned with reassuring the American public that we (the USA) are taking this whole space thing seriously, while also making sure they know that Congress is definitely looking into who dropped the ball on the whole making-sure-the-Soviets-didn't-orbit-a-satellite-first thing. That's not of much interest to someone looking to learn about the basic history of the space race—but it's a fascinating look into contemporaneous attitudes towards space and the space program for people already well-versed in space history. For the latter, there's a wealth of rarely-seen footage of early Mercury and Apollo tests, as well as an interesting example of Russian disinformation: the Wolper documentaries tout their "exclusive" footage of the launches of Sputniks 1 and 2, provided by the Ministry of Culture of the USSR itself. However, both are shots of other launches of a much smaller rocket (apparently the R-2A sounding rocket) than the ICBM-based launcher that actually launched the two satellites.
The fourth documentary, Journey to the Moon, is a 2008 film about the Apollo 11 mission. Unlike the Wolper films, this program is perfectly appropriate for space newbies. It's a good, solid summary of the mission, full of interviews and high-quality (given its age) film footage of the Apollo 11 flight. If you can't get enough Neil and Buzz, the set also includes Time of Apollo, the "official" Apollo 11 film produced by NASA in 1969, which is also included in this set. The official NASA films for Apollos 12, 13, and 17 are also included, plus a NASA film entitled Fly Me To The Moon and Back about the mission planners behind the scenes of the moonshots. These NASA films are all about half an hour long, and are in the public domain, so they're fairly easy to find both online and in other DVD compilation. Unfortunately, they all are in fairly rough shape from an image and sound standpoint, although these are probably the best copies (relatively speaking) that I've seen. Finally, an Apollo 11 slideshow and the complete footage of John F. Kennedy's famous Rice University speech of September 12, 1962, where he committed the US to landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, round out the set.
Other than Journey to the Moon, which is only a couple of years old, these films are over 50 years old, and do look it. The public domain NASA films are the worst of the lot, as discussed above. The three Wolper films, which are all black and white, fare better. There's some occasional damage present, and the film's grain is fairly coarse, but overall they're not significantly different in visual quality from, say, an early Twilight Zone episode. The sound is, of course, all mono, but it's serviceable (and much better on the Wolper films than on the NASA films, which suffer from the softness and muting typical of your average 16mm grade school biology film).
While it's far from being the perfect history of the space program, there's actually quite a bit of content in The Race for Space: America's Greatest Journey, given the set's list price of $9.99—which equates to $5.99 on Amazon. If you're a space fan, and if you don't already own the NASA public domain films in another format, this would be a decent addition to your space library. If you're a space novice looking for the drama and intrigue of America's greatest journey, I'd recommend going with From the Earth to the Moon and The Right Stuff (the excellent book, not the merely good movie).
Guilty of being a sub-par introduction for novices, but sentenced to time served for being a good value for hardcore space nuts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
• Bonus Documentaries
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