Friday, June 06, 2008

TV Preview: When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

In the past hundred years, the single greatest achievement of mankind is without a doubt our conquest of space. In less than 10 years, the American space program would go from knowing next to nothing about putting a man in space to landing atwo men on the moon and returning them to Earth.

Discovery Channel chronicles the first 50 years of NASA's successes and failures in a brand new documnetary entitled When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions which premieres on June 8 at 9PM EDT/PDT. The series is narrated by award-winning actor Gary Sinise. Over three consecutive Sunday nights, this series will take the viewer on a journey through the history of the space program like no other documentary ever has before.

"This project started out as a preservation endeavor," said executive producer Bill Howard in a recent interview. "We sat down with NASA and explained to them that we wanted to go back through their archives and preserve and remaster all of their original film source material, the film that had been to the moon and had been in space, the real treasures of the NASA archives."

Click here to listen to an interview with executive producer Bill Howard.

What followed was a painstaking process in which the producers viewed more than 500 hours of footage and converting over 100 hours into HD to be used in this series. HD copies were then donated back to NASA.

But they didn't stop there. The producers also went through the process of digitizing the audio archives which also proved to be a monumental task.

"At the time of Mercury and Gemini, they didn't record the audio on the same medium as the picture," explained Mr. Howard. "Film would be shot in space and the audio would be recorded back in Houston on some custom government magnetic reel to reel tape and you go back and you try to access those magnetic tape sources. Some of them are completely degraded and can't be played. Others are fragile and have to be handled with such care that you only get one chance to digitize it."

The result of all this work is a visually stunning series that puts the viewer right in the middle of what the astronauts experienced on these missions. You feel as if you're in the spacecraft alongside these astronauts as they embark on these magnificent adventures. For the first time, mission footage has been synchronized with the audio so that viewers will get to not only see but hear the astronauts during these missions.

Interspersed with the archival footage are present day interviews with both the astronauts and some of the flight directors. Viewers will get a greater understanding of the character of the men and women who undertake the challenge to explore space.

The first episode, entitled "Ordinary Supermen", begins with the earliest days of NASA. The Soviets have already launched Sputnik to begin the Space Race. NASA is working feverishly to try to catch up. They recruit the best pilots they can find to become the first astronauts. Out of 110 who qualify, only seven will become Mercury astronauts. Interviews with the two surviving Mercury astronauts, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, are included to provide insight and personal recollections from their missions. In order to make it into space, NASA has to invent completely new technology. As flight director Gene Kranz puts it, learning to fly into space was like "learning to drink from a fire hose".

Episode two, "Gemini-Friends and Rivals", provides rare footage of the recruiting and training process and focuses on the steps that must be achieved to make it to the moon. Ed White's inaugural space walk on Gemini 4 is stunning to watch in HD. Another highlight is Gene Cernan's space walk on a later Gemini mission. For the first time, we get to hear Cernan's struggle to work in space with the mission audio synchronized to the film. Cernan also provides present-day recollections that add to the drama.

The third episode, "Apollo-Landing the Eagle", opens with the first major tragedy of the space program: the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA bounces back to a few months later launching Apollo 8 which was the first mission to achieve lunar orbit. The footage from this mission (including shots of the stages of the Saturn V rocket separating) is absolutely incredible. The episode concludes with the Apollo 11 landing and NASA's greatest achievement to date.

Episode 4, "A Home in Space", begins with Apollo missions 12-17 and the near-disaster of Apollo 13. Astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise and flight director Gene Kranz put us right in the middle of the drama with their recollections of the ill-fated mission. As the Apollo program winds down, NASA decides to take the leftover hardware to create Skylab, the first attempt to put a space station into orbit.

Episode 5, "The Shuttle", brings us to the next great chapter of NASA's history. Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen share their memories of the first shuttle launch which holds the distinction of being the first time that NASA will test a new vehicle with astronauts aboard. Both Young and Crippen tell us what it's like to ride a thoroughly untested spaceship. Another highlight is the footage from astronaut Bruce McCandless' untethered spacewalk which was the first time it was ever attempted. The episode concludes with the Challenger explosion and includes some specially declassified material of the solid rocket boosters being destroyed following the explosion of the Challenger.

As episode 6, "A New Space Age", opens, NASA is reeling from the Challenger disaster and scrambles to get the shuttle flying again. Their next great endeavor is the Hubble Space Telescope. But after deployment, they discover huge problems with it that require a daring repair mission that is documented here. After the successful repair of Hubble comes the Columbia disaster which, as the mission footage shows, might have been avoided. The onboard footage of the crew as they begin re-entry is eerie to watch. As with the other missions, the film is remarkable to watch. The series concludes with the construction of the International Space Station and the next great chapter of space exploration.

Unlike other documentaries about space, this series focuses more on the men and women of NASA than the technical achievements.

"What we tried to do is look at it as an adventure story: real heroes, real stakes, and relal jeopardy," said Mr. Howard. We gave it a theatrical score and built it as we would build an adventure movie and I think that's our effort any way to make it relevant to people now by putting it in a medium they understand: high definition television with a full theatrical score."

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions certainly accomplishes that objective. It is our greatest adventure.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions will air on the Discovery Channel at 9PM EDT/PDT on June 8, 15 and 22.

This article was originally published at Blogcritics.

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