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Blu-ray Review: When We Left Earth – The NASA Missions

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The U.S. space program carries with it a kind of built-in nostalgia. NASA is still faithfully trucking along, but with seemingly fewer and fewer trips into space, the golden days seem firmly rooted in the past. It’s been decades since the space program has inspired the kind of awe that swept the nation in the ‘60s, but NASA has been anything but idle since then.

The endlessly fascinating Discovery Channel miniseries on the NASA missions, When We Left Earth, chronicles the last 50 or so years of the program, and it hardly matters whether you lived through the history-making missions or not or whether you are particularly interested in space exploration or not to be captivated by this set. Broken down into six hour-long episodes, and originally shot in high-definition, the When We Left Earth Blu-ray set is fantastic as an informational tool and a visual wonder.

Each episode primarily focuses on one space program, from the early flights of the Mercury Program that sent the first American into space to Project Gemini that allowed spacewalking to the Apollo Program that saw man land on the moon. There’s no question that these are the events that define NASA’s image in the collective American mind, but the later episodes are no less interesting in their look at the subsequent moon landings, the space shuttle, and the space station. While the tone of the series is overwhelmingly on the positive – after all, NASA has overcome some massive potential tragedies – there are looks at the darker moments in the space program as well, including the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

One of the series’ greatest strengths is its lack of anything superfluous – this is a rich set that makes good use of the archive footage and the new interviews that make up the entirety of every episode. There are, no doubt, hours upon hours of archive footage from the days of the space race and beyond, but the signs of careful crafting are here, as there aren’t many instances when the footage just feels thrown in for good measure.

While the spectacular shots of spacewalks and blasting into space are probably a bigger appeal for most, the extensive interviews are probably the more valuable part, as we hear from NASA veterans like flight directors Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft and the astronauts who made history like John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Buzz Aldrin, and even the somewhat reclusive Neil Armstrong. The series feels less like a documentary and more like story time with these giants of American history, and it’s a truly great accomplishment to have the stories of all of these men compiled in one set – future generations will benefit.

The 1080i HD presentation looks as good as you can expect from footage as old as some of this is. There’s plenty of grain and spots on the film stock, but the color and black levels look better than they ought to on archive footage. The interviews, shot in HD, are remarkably crisp. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and isn’t a major player here, as a single channel of interviewed voices is the primary audio.

The special features are basically just footage that didn’t make it into the final presentation, along with original NASA films. With an entire disc devoted to special features, this is a set that’s worthwhile even for those who already saw the miniseries on TV.

When We Left Earth is a production of the highest quality – it’s a Blu-ray set that is both historically significant and technically excellent.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.