When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions
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When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

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We who are part of the generation called the baby boomers have seen some of the most sweeping changes in the history of mankind. We can remember when telephones were large, heavy black devices that were tethered to a table by a cord. For us television began as a huge wooden box with a small black and white screen that received maybe four or five channels. Yet within our life times we were witness to technological wonders that most people now take for granted. Perhaps the most exciting part of the collective youth of our generation was baring witness to one of the greatest achievements of our species. We sat in front of our TV sets and watched as mankind broke free from the earth and reached out to outer space and eventually walked upon the moon. Now this may not seem like a big deal to those born after this event. Our children were the first generation to be blasé about people launching off to space. For us though this was the most exciting thing of our lives. Most of us know exactly were we were that moment that Neil Armstrong first placed his foot on the lunar soil. This was possible because of the new age of technology that we were all entering. There have been many films and television series about this period of history. Recently a mini series by the Discovery Channel once again takes us back in time to look at the events that made that period one of the most important mankind has ever experienced. ‘When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions’ is a six part series that covers the manned space program from the early Mercury flights through the space shuttle. Made with the close cooperation of NASA this series presents the thrills, excitement and concern that captured a generation. Now the Discovery Channel through their distributor Image Entertainment has a DVD set that is a keeper. Not only is this an important piece of history it is a documentary of our youth and memories.

Were ever possible first person accounts are used to tell the stories depicted in each episode. My best friend has hundreds of hours of audio tape made during the early space missions and when he watched this recognized much of what was being said word for word. This series goes beyond recanting what was said and seen before. With the level of access that NASA provided the producers were able to go far behind the scenes showing the space program as never before. Most of us remember the nail biting hours leading up to a launch or the anxiety of waiting to hear if a particular part of the mission was performed successfully and the astronauts would return safely. This series goes into the details of the kind of people involved in this vast undertaking. Everyone from the men in the capsules to the ground crews and engineers are responsible for the many wonders this program accomplished.

Part 1: Ordinary Supermen

This episode starts in September of 1959. NASA was testing an experimental rocket plane, the X-15. There was a rush to put a man into Space. The Soviet Union was already in the midst of preparations that would beat us and we as a nation was not about to let this happen. The first group of men that would be known as astronauts were being chosen and there was disagreement ass to what the criteria for selection should be. NASA wanted daredevils like Evel Knievel figuring they were be willing to face the dangers involved and were physically fit enough for the strenuous demands. President Eisenhower relied on his military training and pushed test pilots from the military services. Besides the men who would fly the spacecrafts there was also a need for experts from a myriad of specialties required on the ground. One of the first was Gene Kranz who would be part of the flight control group. Like many in NASA back then there was no experience in what had to be done. This was on the job training at its most intense. A testing program was developed to make sure only the brightest, most adaptive and capable would be chosen. In the end there was the Mercury Seven, the first American astronauts. This episode details the first orbital flight by John Glenn and the heat shield problem on his second orbit that could have ended the mission and his life.

Part 2: Friends and Rivals

After the six Mercury missions were successfully done it was time to move on to even more difficult objectives. Mercury showed that we had the ability to launch a man into space and survive orbiting our planet. Now, it was time to explore the limits of man’s ingenuity and endurance even further. The Gemini program would consist of two man crafts. The objectives would all lead to what was required to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely. To do this a craft would have dock with another spacecraft. This would be needed to have the lunar command module dock with the landing module in space. There were also objectives of endurance with flights of increasing duration. One of the most memorable objectives was EVA; extra vehicular activity. Ed White was the first American to open the hatch of his craft and float outside. If we were to land on the moon we would have to leave the relative safety of the craft.

Part 3: Landing the Eagle

After NASA achieved everything they set out to do with Gemini it was time to take the final steps that would lead us on that journey from the earth to the moon. Apollo would contain the greatest successes and most tragic moments in the American space program to date. The first mission in this part of the program was Apollo 1. On January 27, 1967 during what was to be a routine test of the command module a fire broke out killing all three astronauts. There was concern that the program was over but the memory of those brave men was not to be in vein and the flights would continue. Apollo 8 took three men into lunar obit and then by Apollo 11 the dream would be fulfilled. In rare interviews Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin give a first hand account of being the first men to walk on the moon.

Part 4: The Explorers

After Apollo 11 the race to the move was over. America rose above the Soviet space program and landed men on the moon. This would not be the end of the missions to the moon though. Apollo 12 returned and space flight to the moon was becoming routine. Then while on the way to the lunar surface an explosion occurred on Apollo 13. Thanks to the training and dedication of the men in space and those on the ground they were brought back safely. Four other missions to the moon were made further extending our knowledge. Finally we achieved the first orbiting space station, Skylab.

Part 5: The Shuttle

After the Apollo missions ended and Skylab had done its job the concern with space was far from over. Now it was necessary to find new ways to explore beyond our planet. One of the big concerns was the use of one use space crafts. This led to the space shuttle which would be able to fly into space and return with a much larger crew. Once again tragedy struck NASA and the country when in 1986 millions of Americans watched the Challenger shuttle explode killing all on board.

Part 6: A Home in Space

In this last episode of the documentary the focus is on the long missions of the space shuttle. One that is detailed is the mission that was used to repair the Hubble satellite. It is now possible to work rather routinely in space thanks to all that has gone before.

The Discovery Channel has done an incredible job of bringing this series to DVD. It would have been well worth owning if the only material it contained was the six televised episodes. Each of the four discs is packed with additional material including rarely seen original footage and interviews. This is the definitive look at the American space program and should be in every home and enjoyed by the whole family.

Posted 09/27/08

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