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Sunday, October 12, 2008


The most thrilling adventure of the 20th century, without a doubt, would have to be the story of NASA's incredible exploits in outer space. The Discovery Channel's six-part documentary, WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS (2008) is a richly informative and often breathtaking retelling of this story, from our first tentative steps into space to the moon landings and finally to the development of orbital space stations and the space shuttle itself.

It's the story of the scientists and engineers who conceived the hardware, the mission control personnel who coordinated the missions, and the heroic astronauts themselves who risked their lives to venture into the most awe-inspiring frontier of all time.

Disc one begins with "Ordinary Supermen", the original Mercury astronauts who blazed the trail into space with a series of one-man flights that first captured the imagination of the entire world and set into motion a space-race between the United States and Russia which prompted President John F. Kennedy to vow that NASA would land a man on the moon before the decade's end. "Friends and Rivals" continues this quest with the two-man Gemini missions, including the first rendevous of two seperate craft in orbit and the first space docking.

With disc two comes "Landing the Eagle", in which all that has gone before, including the tragic deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in a fire that rages through their Apollo 1 space capsule, finally culminates in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's historic moon landing. "The Explorers" documents the remaining moon missions, including the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight that almost left three men stranded in deep space, and ends with the launch of SkyLab, America's first orbital space station.

Disc three details the creation of "The Shuttle", NASA's new reusable workhorse vehicle designed to be launched into space and then land back on Earth like a glider. The final episode, "A Home in Space", tells of the launch of the Hubble telescope and the touch-and-go repair mission that must be undertaken in order to repair it, and ends with the construction of the international space station.

An unbelievable wealth of film and video has been assembled to make WHEN WE LEFT EARTH a visual feast from beginning to end. More than ever before, we get to see the story unfold before our eyes as it's told, from the grainy NASA footage of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions all the way to the breathtaking clarity of the more recent images, which surpass any conceivable Hollywood SPFX.

Astronaut Ed White's first spacewalk is a highlight, as is the rendezvous between Gemini VI and VII in which we see an astronaut waving at us through the window of the other craft. Long overhead views of the moon's surface are mesmerizing. The moon landings themselves are depicted in a way that conveys their almost inconceivable significance in the history of human evolution.

The story usually ends here in such previous documentaries as MOON SHOT and dramatizations like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. Here, however, we're shown that the daring of brave and adventurous astronauts continues to yield fascinating real-life drama. The most affecting, of course, are the accounts of the doomed space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, victims of NASA's negligence during a phase in which space flight began to seem routine.

These are augmented by some of the clearest closeup shots of shuttles in flight that I've ever seen, and the Challenger explosion is shown in startling never-before-seen declassified footage. Later, the sequence in which a shuttle crew ascends to twice the usual orbit above the Earth and exits their craft in order to repair the Hubble telescope is as riveting as any science fiction, with some of the most astonishing images in the entire series.

Much of WHEN WE LEFT EARTH is told in the words of surviving astronauts, NASA ground personnel, family members, and others directly involved, their words often tinged with emotion. Longtime flight coordinator Gene Kranz, as always, is particularly eloquent and philosophical in his recollections. Gary Sinise, who played astronaut Ken Mattingly in APOLLO 13, proves quite capable as a narrator for Ed Fields' script, while Richard Blair-Oliphant's action-movie musical score is highly effective.

Discs one through three also contain highlights from NASA films, additional interviews, and other interesting footage that augments each chapter in the story. Disc four is a collection of NASA-produced films from the 60s which are interesting not only for their subject matter, but as relics of their time. They include "Freedom 7" (which uses library music also heard in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, of all things), "Friendship 7: John Glenn", the amusingly-inept dramatizations of "Proud Conquest: Gemini VII and VI", "Debrief: Apollo 8" with narration by Burgess Meredith, and "The Flight of Apollo 11."

 The DVD looks and sounds great, with a 16:9 aspect ratio and 5.1 surround sound, and the attractive metal DVD case is a keeper. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Whether you're a space buff already, or you just want to learn about the history of space flight in those thrilling days before it was taken for granted, WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS should more than satisfy your curiosity while providing the kind of mind-blowing entertainment that few other real-life stories could hope to provide. It's a reminder, even for those of us who lived through it all while it was happening, of the sheer wonder of space flight.


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