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.