TV Documentary - When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions
- Excerpt from:
[go to link for full article]
50 Years of NASA's Home Movies
by John Schwartz
(New York Times, 6/6/2008)
About midway through "When We Left Earth," a sweeping new video
history of the American space program, the former NASA flight director
Eugene F. Kranz looks into the camera with an intensity that is almost
"The power of space was to raise our aspirations to those things that
are possible," he says, "if we will commit."
Those four words lay out the underlying argument of the six hours of a
NASA documentary that goes far beyond recounting history, and which
begins on Sunday [June 7] at 9 p.m., Eastern and Pacific times, on the
Mr. Kranz, who was the famous flight director on the nearly tragic
Apollo 13 mission Ed Harris played him in the 1995 movie "Apollo 13"
has still got the flattop. He's still wearing a flashy vest, just
like the ones he wore for missions stretching from the initial Mercury
program to today's space shuttle. But he's decades older than that kid
in the pictures from the early days.
So is the space program.
The future is 50 years old.
Last October marked a half-century since the Soviet Union launched
Sputnik, the be-beeping, silvery ball that transformed science fiction
to science fact. The next year the United States government pooled
aerospace research resources under a new agency: the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.
So NASA has reached the half-century mark, and the Discovery Channel
has set out to tell the tale. This, however, is not just another recap
of the parts everybody knows: the hell-for-leather attempt to catch up
with the Soviets' first satellite and then chasing their countryman
into space in 1961; President John F. Kennedy's stunning pledge, just
a few weeks after Alan Shepard's flight, that "before this decade is
out" America would put a man on the Moon; Neil Armstrong's "one small
step for a man," and the famous flags and footprints and lunar buggies
Mr. Shepard and Mr. Armstrong get their due, of course, but so does
the long-ignored Gemini program the essential middle step between
the original Mercury flights and the Apollo missions that laid so much
of the groundwork for reaching the Moon. And there is Skylab, the
first American space station and the subject of an audacious rescue
effort after damage during ascent threatened to render it useless.
And the series devotes hours to the current space program. Two
episodes focus on the space shuttle, NASA's attempt to make space
travel routine, which for many people made it dull.
Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who flew three shuttle missions,
including the one that launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and who
appears in the film, applauded the broader focus of the series in a
telephone interview this week. She suggested that the breadth might be
a function of the big, round anniversary itself. Maybe, she said,
"given that your target and your assignment is 50, you found yourself
discovering that the program didn't end in '73; you found meaning and
purpose and significance to events that occurred in 'spaceflight as
Like many gadget-happy Americans, NASA took lots and lots of home
movies. For this series it threw open the doors of its film and video
archives, which have been transferred to stunning high-definition format.
The resulting episodes have the vividness of a dream: here are images
many of us have seen all of our lives, but instead of showing up in
grainy black and white or in still photographs in magazines, there is
vivid color and motion showing moments like the first American space
walk by the astronaut Ed White.
"This is utterly not just seeing it again," Ms. Sullivan said.
The quality of the video and the very human touches "took our breath
away" said Dan Parry, the head of research on the project, in an
interview last week. "They're not always wearing silver suits.
Sometimes they're hanging out on the beach," he said. "It turns out
that astronauts are people after all."
Bill Howard, the executive producer on the series, said in an
interview that the hundreds of hours of archival footage turned out to
be "what amounts to dailies from an action movie shoot." The series
shapes a narrative around then-and-now intercutting of old footage of
astronauts and mission managers, with voice-over narration by the
actor Gary Sinise, who played the astronaut Ken Mattingly in "Apollo
13," that stitches things together.
Mr. Armstrong, in a rare interview for the series, describes his
descent to the lunar surface as his fuel supply dwindled. And there is
an ebullient Alan Bean, who went to the moon on the second flight, and
who says, "When you're an astronaut, you buy into a lot of risk," and
"If you can't buy into it, don't be an astronaut."