Judge Jim Thomas has never left earth, save in his dreams.
"Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…"
I was six when man landed on the moon. My mind struggled to reconcile the image of Neil Armstrong's first steps with the image of the moon in the night sky, so impossibly far away. Somewhere up there, way up high, men were walking on the moon! In the 60s, spaceflight was magical; today it has become almost commonplace.
Created in association with NASA to commemorate the agency's fiftieth anniversary in 2008, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is a Discovery Channel documentary miniseries that documents NASA's achievements over the past 50 years, spanning from the first Mercury flights through the Gemini program to the Apollo moon landings, the Space Shuttle, and the construction of the International Space Station. The six-part miniseries first aired on June 8, 2008, and concluded on June 22. Let's see if it can restore that sense of awe and wonder.
Facts of the Case
The set includes all six episodes:
• Ordinary Supermen: The start of the Space Race and the flights of the Mercury program, including the flight of John Glenn in Friendship 7.
• Friends and Rivals: Project Gemini and the first American extra-vehicular activity (spacewalk) by Gemini 4 astronaut Ed White.
• Landing the Eagle: The beginning of the Apollo program, including the tense descent of Apollo 11, and the first humans' footsteps on the lunar surface.
• The Explorers: The subsequent moon missions, as well as the Apollo Applications Program, better known as Skylab.
• The Shuttle: The flights of the Space Shuttle, beginning with Columbia's maiden voyage on April 12, 1981. The episode also documents the Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. The episode ends with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and the subsequent discovery of its defective mirror.
• A Home in Space: The first refurbishment mission of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the launch and assembly of the International Space Station. The episode also recalls the Columbia disaster during re-entry on February 1, 2003.
The series is narrated by Gary Sinise (Apollo 13), but he really doesn't do all that much—and that's a good thing. Sinise functions more as a master of ceremonies; he establishes the date/situation and then gets out of the way. The series cuts from speaker to speaker with little or no fanfare, using subtitles for identification. For the most part, there's a pattern—you see archival footage of an astronaut, he/she is identified on screen, and then you cut to that person talking in the present; the pattern simplifies linking the speakers with their former selves. Sometimes, the speaker isn't identified immediately. So there I am, trying to figure out who this old guy is, realizing that he looks familiar but I can't quite place him. Then the archival footage appears and I realize that it's Neil Armstrong. Neil Armstrong, who has for years steadfastly refused to talk about his astronaut career. They got Neil Armstrong to do an interview. That in and of itself suggests the raw effort put into this documentary. Mercury pilots, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle—astronauts from throughout NASA's history talk about their missions and above all, their passion for the job. Other people, including administrators, reporters, Christa McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, and former president George H.W. Bush, bring their perspectives to the table as well.
The importance of providing a somewhat comprehensive look at NASA's manned programs cannot be understated, as it allows us to see each flight, each success, each failure, as part of the bigger picture. As you might imagine, a fair amount of time is spent on the Challenger disaster. And while the senselessness of the tragedy is undeniable—the engineers' recommendation to cancel the launch was ignored—what has always struck me as amazing is that the United States went twenty five years before losing a crew in flight. (The Apollo 1 crew died in a training accident.) Watching the history of the program laid out in its entirety, watching the tasks set out, increases the wonder by orders of magnitude.
Every viewer will have a favorite segment; it may be Alan Shepard teeing on up on the lunar surface on Apollo 14, it may be the night launch of Apollo 17. One that particularly catches the imagination is the tale of the Hubble Space Telescope. After the Hubble was launched in 1990, scientists discovered that the telescope's main mirror had been ground to the wrong specifications. The error—a matter of 2.3 microns, effectively gave Hubble the most expensive case of near-sightedness ever.
The documentary details the multiple shuttle repair missions, and perhaps more than any other mission demonstrates how space flight brings out the best in us, as the astronauts improvise to in the face of adversity to complete their mission. The sequence also includes the stunning sight of a discarded solar panel, fully deployed, "flying" away from the shuttle and Hubble.
The set has an abundance of extras. Each of the three episode discs has some additional material—NASA film highlights, interviews, or mission clips. A fourth disc contains five NASA documentaries, each created at the time of the flight(s): Alan Shepherd and Freedom 7; John Glenn and Friendship 7; Gemini VII and VI (Yes, it is seven, then six; due to a launch malfunction with Gemini VI, Gemini VII launched first.); Apollo 9, the first flight of the lunar module; and Apollo 11. None of them were ever contenders for a documentary Oscar, but they're fascinating glimpses into the past. The Gemini segment is particularly interesting—Geminis VII and VI performed the first rendezvous in space, and the combination of orbital footage, mission control footage, and a NASA engineer's running illustration (on a chalkboard) of the various maneuvers involved makes you appreciate the complexities of space flight even more.
Video quality varies substantially, as you might expect. Some of the archival footage is in bad shape, while the newer footage is breathtakingly crisp. Most of the footage appears to have been at least color corrected. Footage of Ed White's first American spacewalk on Gemini 4 is amazingly crisp, though a tad jerky (a function of the camera).
Sound is pretty good, with 2.0 and 5.1 options. Disclaimer: I suffered a bad ear infection last week, and my hearing has yet to recover, so I can't say much about the sound mix. Once my ears open, I'll update the review accordingly. What I can hear, though, sounds pretty good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When you compress forty seven years into four and a half hours, some stuff is going to get lost in the shuffle. Some gaps are inevitable, but perhaps this subject needed a slightly longer canvas. We go from Apollo 14, with Alan Shepherd playing golf on the moon, directly to Apollo 16. The focus with Apollo 16 is the lunar rover, implying that the rover first flew on Apollo 16. However, the rover made its debut on Apollo 15, and was critical in the discovery and retrieval of "Genesis Rock," a piece of the moon's original crust, formed in the early stages of the solar system's development. Its discovery was one of the geological triumphs of the Apollo program. Another notable omission is John Glenn's 1998 shuttle flight, on which he became the oldest person (77) to fly in space.
The set comes in a nice commemorative tin snap case. Unfortunately, there is no place to store the foldout booklet that accompanies the set. It falls out when you open the case, and you just have to put it back in right before you close it; in addition, the spindles that hold the discs in place damage the booklet.
There are other documentaries out there that may go into more detail on a single flight, but nothing else out there—and I mean nothing—can match the sheer scope of When We Left Earth. It's a must for anyone interested in the space program, but it perhaps more important for the younger generations. I grew up in the '60s and '70s, so that each new accomplishment—Apollo 11, Skylab, the Space Shuttle—filled me with a sense of wonder that is altogether lost on today's youth. When We Left Earth is a loving, poignant reminder to that generation that whatever our future accomplishments, the only reason they will even be possible is because we once stood, not on the shoulders of giants, but of brave men and women who shared the conviction of a single thought—"We can do this."
Next time, though, take little more time, OK? When the universe is your subject, you're allowed a larger canvas.
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