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TV Review: When We Left Earth

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I’m no stranger to the history of the US space program. I’ve seen all the movies — The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and every hour of From The Earth To The Moon. I’ve seen all the breath-holding close calls, the horrifying accidents, the toll the program took on these astronauts and their families. So, when watching this history in documentary form on Discovery Channel’s When We Left Earth, I got a different perspective. When I watched the drama with NASA footage in full HD, it was a hundred times more compelling. Why? Because it was real.

Hollywood drama has nothing on this compilation. This six-part miniseries aired the first two parts on Sunday, covering the Mercury and Gemini years. Next up are the Apollo missions, the Apollo-Soyuz test project, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the International Space Station. All this is being done in commemoration of NASA’s 50th anniversary, and Discovery was given full access to NASA’s sacred vault of mission footage. The result is an HD masterpiece that both revives the imagination and thrill of exploration, and also ignites my inner fury at the government for not doing more since that last moon mission back in 1972.

Gary Sinise provides a compelling narration of this series, and even if his tone is dramatic at times, it should be considering the gravity of the work featured. We learn about the strengths and weaknesses of these daring test pilots who were commissioned to take the US into this bold new adventure and all they brought to the program. The pacing of the episodes is quick, managing to grab and maintain the focus of even the shortest attention span.

We learn about the failures just as much as the triumphs, and get a sobering reminder of how close many of those flights came to disaster. We learn John Glenn and Scott Carpenter’s flights didn’t go as well as we remember, and there were many problems with the fast track of the Gemini missions. The footage of Ed White’s historic space walk this time brought me to tears in excitement, a bittersweet moment considering he died in the Apollo 1 fire.

The HD footage, especially when viewed on my large plasma TV, gave me an experience as if I were right there in the capsule, watching everything unfold through the window. The video is better here than what they had at mission control. The interviews with most of the surviving Mercury and Gemini astronauts were giant history lessons, and ones that not only feed information junkies like me, but also benefit and fuel the aspirations of my children, who have only ever seen a space shuttle in action.

We don’t get just the astronauts either, we also get accounts from flight directors Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft, people who can share what was really happening behind closed doors when malfunctions occurred. The tense moments from the staff in mission control had me clinging to my seat, which was odd since history had already written the outcome.

I’ve only seen the first two parts, and eagerly anticipate the last four as they air the next two Sundays on The Discovery Channel. For those who miss the airings, this mini-series can be ordered on DVD and Blu-ray on Discovery’s website.

This is a must see for any family, not just tech geeks like me, but for young people and children who haven’t been around long enough to witness such an historic and ambitious achievement for our country as a moon landing. The space shuttle program once inspired ambitions as well, but as interest has dropped so has the desire for exploration. We need shows like this to fuel imaginations and encourage innovation, for the leadership in this country gave up on that long ago. We need the next generation to have their “moon landing”. Until then, we all have a wonderful new way to experience the stories of those who did.

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About Alice Jester

  • I totally agree with the author. Everyone should see this one. My dream is that the Russians would do the same on what happened on their side so that the whole world can share in their experiences too.

  • Rowel – I am in complete agreement. I would love to see the entire history of the Russian space program. Sadly, given the Communist government’s tight controls on communication and information at the time, that may never happen.

  • freste

    its just amazing watching this in hd, its a high definition view on the past that gives it life.

    and it only makes me angrier that obama is thinking so small and declared that he would cut nasa’s budget if he were president:(