10/07/2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions



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On May 5, 1961 when astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American man sent into space, a NASA interviewee reported that although the mission lasted just twenty minutes it was the equivalent of “total joy” or more accurately the “purest, happiest twenty minutes” of our lives in an event for which the excitement has never been matched. While many who grew up in the era of the space race and President John F. Kennedy’s historic challenge just twenty days following Shepard’s mission aboard Freedom 7 to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade can recall with unparalleled accuracy just where they were when Neil Armstrong fulfilled that goal, there’s no doubt that they’ve never been given the full story until now... unless they worked at NASA.

Despite catching glimpses of the much larger picture or “small steps,” if you will to quote Armstrong in cinematic epics like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and documentaries like From the Earth to the Moon and In the Shadow of the Moon that outlined some of the paramount achievements of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and astronauts, never before have we gotten such an insider’s view of the intricacies and entire history of the program until 2008.

In addition to “candid interviews of the people who made it all happen” we’re offered “priceless footage… from NASA’s own secret film vaults,” and “hundreds of hours of never-before seen film footage from the NASA archives, including sequences on board the actual spacecraft in flight,” which “have been carefully restored, edited and compiled” in the Discovery Channel’s groundbreaking six-part miniseries When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.

Following a rave reception in its initial airing over the past summer, Image Entertainment has transferred the incredible set, narrated by award-winning actor Gary Sinise to both DVD and Blu-ray High-Definition. Boxed in a collectible tin and with a fourteen page booklet that chronologically outlines some of NASA’s most incredible major events, a rare and exclusive interview with Armstrong, it also contains an entire bonus fourth disc of never-before-released footage right from the NASA vaults.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is the definitive collection on the subject that’s a must own not just for lovers of American (and global) history but also parents and academic institutions eager to educate the next generation about the courageous achievements of the men and women who have gone before them, daring to reach out into the unknown of space and witness the far side of the moon.

While initially I feared that breaking up the saga into six parts may make the series feel padded and test the limits of our decreasing attention spans, I was instantly riveted by the high-quality production value and the endlessly inspiring narrative that hooked me so much I completed the series in just two days.

Having been born into a generation where the only time we ever heard about NASA was when the news wanted to chronicle its failures instead of its achievements in the horrific tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia and the initial failure of the astronomically expensive Hubble Telescope, nonetheless I was always fascinated by the idea of NASA and one of my earliest ambitions was to some day ride a rocket as a female astronaut. While not knowing the difference between a compass and a protractor, proceeding to earn a "D" in college level Math 90, and being advised to sign up for “Physics for Poets,” helped outline my path that writing and the arts were where my talents seemed to fall, I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by the organization and especially its life-affirming unceasing quest to continually ask the existential, humanistic questions of who we are, where we came from, and what exists outside of this one tiny planet in an endless universe.

It’s easy to live day-to-day worrying about the little things or obsessing about the global events but what this series reminds us of-- throughout every single episode--is how much more is out there that we do not understand and that we should be far more united as a planet to unlocking the clues of a universe as opposed to increasing a divide between countries and emphasizing an us vs. them society. For, when the astronauts stare down from space, we’re all together in this great planet—indistinguishable—just mere inhabitants of one globe, which makes it a terrible loss that we haven’t pooled all of our intellectual and optimistic resources to find common ground in reaching for the stars. Still, the “total joy” of Shepard’s flight transfers to total joy on a DVD set that will hopefully inspire a new generation of inquisitive scientists and a new era for NASA.

Immediately challenging our stereotypes of astronauts as space cowboys—instead of just the heroic, clich├ęd tales of nostalgia, we’re presented fully fascinating portraits of men and women who could be our own husbands or wives or neighbors as they use the ability of hindsight to critique choices, offer a new approach to footage we thought we’d completely understood, or open our eyes to something different altogether. Of course, much like brain surgeons, astronauts and rocket scientists must definitely have a different outlook from the average bear and there are some macabre jokes and cocky assertions but after only viewing what one typical day is like, we realize that the bravado is necessary to get the job done as they find themselves in circumstances one couldn’t possibly imagine.

Chronicling not just the highlights of the organization but also its mistakes and tragedies involving those whose lives were lost along the way—we have a truly insider’s view of the painstaking process we’ve now come to take for granted as we find ourselves applauding each and every success in retrospect from the incredibly risky moment of both lift-off and the return home when you “fall back to Earth” and the heat shields hit Earth’s atmosphere where anything could happen as one blasts out of lunar orbit.

From mastering walking in space to crafting a suit designed to keep astronauts alive to surviving the “vomit comet” in order to deal with the questions of weightlessness, and figuring out how to send up NASA repairmen to fix things and improvise when necessary in order to salvage equipment, ensure successful missions and above all save lives, every single mission and step truly contributed to Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.”

Continuing on into the last three decades as NASA endured funding crises, public disinterest, disaster, until it began collaborating with Russia on the International Space Station, the set offers a complete picture of the program that has never before been compiled with this much depth and attention to detail.

A true testament to the power of the human spirit, our capacity to question, innovate and endure—When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions isn’t just the best nonfiction miniseries I’ve seen in years and certainly the most authoritative cinematic document on the subject but it couldn’t find its way to DVD shelves at a better time. For when we’re so fixated by the endlessly negative headlines of the state of our nation, we can all take a cue from the lessons of NASA to search for solutions, aspire for change, test the limits of our intellect, realize that we’re all in this as a human race (not just a space race) and remember that it’s not only okay but encouraged to reach for the stars where the only thing stopping us is ourselves.

To quote John F. Kennedy, “we choose to go to the moon,” and do these things, “not because they are easy but because they are hard,” and when things are this hard, there’s nothing better than telling ourselves that we are a people who have gone to the moon. Or as Alan Shepard might say, “Let’s light this candle,” and “don’t f**k this up,” for the power is ours and the sky is the limit and as we all learned in Apollo 13, "Failure is not an option."