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.