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HTF DVD Review: When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions

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#1 of 7 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 06 2008 - 12:37 PM

When We Left Earth

The NASA Missions

Studio: Discovery Channel/Imagine Entertainment
Year: 2008
US Rating: TV-PG
Film Length: 258 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 (Disc four films are 1.33:1)
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

US Release Date: September 30, 2008

The Show - out of

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

It was the great adventure. A quest to explore beyond the upper stratosphere; to venture into a true unknown and conquer the vast realm of possibility that had existed beyond the reach of man since the dawn of time. The ‘race into space’ fueled the passions of a nation and cultivated an era of ingenious engineering, incredible invention and unparalleled heroism. The race to be the first into space, the first to walk in space and the first to land on the moon was against two formidable opponents. The first, a tangible rival, was the former Soviet Union. The secretive and iron-clad nation was hard at work on a space program that was ahead of the Americans. The Soviets, less careful and more aggressive in their goals were the first to put a satellite into orbit with Sputnik. They were the first to put a man into space and seemed to be a step ahead at every turn. The second formidable opponent for the American Space Program was time. On May 25, 1961, just 20 days after Alan Shepard’s 15 minute flight into space, making him the first American to accomplish such a feat (but the second human), John F. Kennedy stirred a nation with a bold and captivating goal, to land Americans on the moon and return them safely before the decade was done. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration had just accomplished the risky and complex mission of getting a man in space and would have less than nine years to overcome the overwhelming engineering and safety challenges of getting man on the moon and bringing them home.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions chronicles this great adventure from the initial steps, fraught with a mountain of unknowns, through the beginning of the Shuttle program and the Space Station mission – detailing the triumphs, tragedies, brave feats and exceptional innovation that mark mans historic expedition into space. With astonishing images, access to unprecedented footage throughout nearly 50 years of space exploration, this 6 part documentary will draw you in with its inspiring drama.

Even as you watch missions from the early 1960’s, missions whose outcome is already known, the work is so tense and captivating that your heart will race in excitement and apprehension. Narrated by Gary Sinise, who played Ken Mattingly in Ron Howard’s wonderful Apollo 13, a mission explored in episode 4, this multi-part documentary unfolds with a constant sense of urgency, capturing the sense of remarkable fortitude and bravery that the men and women of NASA displayed as they raced to become the leaders in space exploration. The courage and arrogance of the competitive astronauts, who provide reflections on that era through recently recorded interviews shown amongst the historical archival footage, is absorbing.

The story is told through these six episodes in such a way that the pressure of that time is clear. The many Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle missions are covered; piecing together the network of exploration and the cumulative knowledge obtained, piece by piece, that has brought our understanding of the earth, moon and the universe to where it is today. This Discovery Channel project succeeds in almost every way, as both a contextual examination and as an inspiring, almost majestic peer back into a remarkable time. It rolls along at a brisk pace, aided by Richard Blair-Oliphant’s superb score, even though it is heavily influenced by Steve Jablonsky’s score for Transformers. While not every detail from each mission is covered, as many who have seen documentary pieces on specific missions will attest, the most pertinent and important areas for understanding the grandeur of the audacity and extraordinary ingenuity are discussed here.

So many moments over these 6 episodes stand out, whether they are single shots, such as the first ever seen ‘earth-rise’ captured by the Apollo 10 mission, the heartbreaking and chilling explosion of the Challenger Shuttle in 1986 or the incredibly exciting Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, each are remarkable. The Challenger disaster in particular is a deeply dramatic and moving moment in the series. I think everyone can remember where they were and how they heard about the tragic accident. NASA’s negligence and mistakes are on display here, and again during the fall out of the Columbia tragedy just a few years ago when a rogue piece of foam smashed a large hole in the heat shield but NASA did not perceive the threat. This documentary covers the heights and depths of the NASA missions - when we were inches away from failure or disaster but made them some of the greatest successes of Mankind. This documentary rightfully heralds the players in these missions as heroes. Flawed but fantastic heroes. The men of the early missions, who, for the benefit of Mankind, strapped themselves to the tip of a gargantuan modified nuclear missile and bravely said “let’s light this candle” – these are true heroes and their work; their missions and their accomplishments are documented here in a terrific, inspiring and awesome account.

The Episodes

Disc One
1: Ordinary Supermen
2: Friends And Rivals

Disc Two
3: Landing The Eagle
4: The Explorers

Disc Three
5: The Shuttle
6: A Home In Space

Disc Four
Original NASA Films:
Freedom 7 – (28:44)
Friendship 7: John Glenn – (58:07)
Proud Conquest: Gemini VII & VI – (29:12)
Apollo 8 Debrief – (27:21)
The Flight of Apollo 11 – (28:25)

These original archival films show their age, but present a unique look at how NASA engaged the public interest and shared the striking challenges and triumphs of the administration.

The Video - out of

Each episode is presented with a 1.78:1, 16:9 anamorphic aspect ratio. The restored NASA archive footage is of varying quality due to age and original condition. As I noted in my review for the blu-ray version, grain, dust and lines are present in much of the footage from the 60’s and even 70’s and some from the 80’s. But this is unparalleled access to this footage and it has been nicely restored for us to witness. The footage becomes cleaner as the years, and missions, progress and the more recent footage of later Shuttle missions is particularly crisp. The quality is appropriate to the time and method of capture.

The blu-ray release is clearly a superior video presentation, but this standard DVD version has plenty to be impressed with. The color balance is good and brings out energy in the footage. The film from the 60’s and 70’s is muted a little in a way that is to be expected, some blues really pop, however. Soft at times, this is still a superb looking documentary throughout. The only way this footage could look any better is if you picked it up on Blu, but if you haven’t yet made that plunge, you will not be disappointed with this standard DVD presentation.

The Sound - out of

Discovery Channel and Image Entertainment bring When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions to our homes on DVD with a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. As with the Blu-ray edition, the narration by Gary Sinise in the center channel, along with the voices of those being interviewed is spotless. Some voices from those being interviewed appear in the front channels also. There is a little distortion, the occasional speckle in the sound during the archival interviews, but it fits perfectly with what we see. The boom in the subwoofer and the rumble in the bass during lift off sequences is impressive and throughout, the heroic sounds of composer Richard Blair-Oliphant’s score rhythmically pulse and sway. Even the surround speakers come alive during mission launch and the subsequent navy rescues during the 60’s.

This is a nicely even audio track accompanying this fine documentary.

Also provided is a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound

The Extra’s - out of

The impressive set of extra features that you find on each disc are filled with original interviews of significant figures, closer looks at key moments in NASA’s history and original footage from NASA missions, set to some interesting musical selections, but this raw footage gives you an unfiltered look. Many are short, but together they provide an even deeper look into the history of NASA and her unrivalled missions.

Disc One
NASA Film Highlights: 4 Days of Gemini 4 – (6:27)

Interviews From NASA Archives
Michael Collins – Astronaut - (3:33)
Joe Kosmo – Space Suit Designer – (2:28)

Mission Clips
Mercury Training – (2:41)
Gemini 6 & 7 Rendezvous – (1:31)
Ed Whites EVA – (3:26)
Gemini 8 Docking with Agena – (1:27)
Gemini 9 Docking Attempt – (1:04)

Disc Two
NASA Film Highlights – (9:09)

Interviews From NASA Archives
Al Bean – (3:09)
Gene Kranz – (4:34)

Mission Clips
Apollo 8: Launching & Stage Separation Sequence – (1:58)
Apollo 8: Lunar & Earth Orbit – (1:54)
Apollo 9: Lunar Module In Earth Orbit – (1:00)
Apollo 11: Astronauts Return & Parade – (1:30)
Apollo 16: Rover Test Drive – (1:47)
Apollo 17: Night Launch – (1:13)

Disc Three
NASA Film Highlights: Skylab – The First 40 Days – (7:37)

Interviews From NASA Archives
Shannon Lucid – Astronaut – (2:48)
James Croker – Aerospace Engineer – (1:32)

Mission Clips
Skylab Tour – (1:58)
Skylab Zero Gravity – (1:38)
Shuttle STS-1 Launch – (1:39)
Shuttle STS-1 Landing – (1:26)
Shuttle STS-31 Hubble Deployment – (1:14)
Shuttle STS-61 Hubble Repair – (1:19)

Final Thoughts

The candid interviews with Astronauts, flight controllers, mission controllers, flight directors and others are, in and of themselves, a fascinating experience. Hearing from Gene Kranz in particular, the flight director for the moon landing and Apollo 13 mission is great. But coupled with access to NASA footage never before seen, restored faithfully and pieced together carefully creates one of the very best documentaries on Space Exploration that I have ever seen. Companion documentaries that you can find regularly replaying on the Discovery Channel, The History Channel and others will flesh out greater details of specific episodes, like the great documentary on how close the Apollo 11 mission came to failure as it was attempting the actual moon landing. But in When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, you will find a completely absorbing and riveting experience. I absolutely recommend this!

Overall Score - out of

Neil Middlemiss
Kernersville, NC
"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science" – Edwin Hubble
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#2 of 7 OFFLINE   Jim B.

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Posted October 07 2008 - 08:15 AM

I have only had time to watch disc one and I had a headache afterwards, the editing reminds me of MTV videos and other kids shows, you can barely focus on an image before it changes. The film editor either has ADD or is on meth or crack.

#3 of 7 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 07 2008 - 08:37 AM

I disagree - while your comment made me grin, I think the sheer volume of footage that we get means alot is crammed, but I was happily able to marvel at plenty of footage onscreen. When the drama is high in the 'story', the images reflect some of the chaos felt/seen, but I did not get the sense that this was one of those choppily edited MTV videos.

I watched the 6 full episodes back to back with no issues, and I can't even read in a car while it's in motion Posted Image
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#4 of 7 OFFLINE   michael_ks



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Posted October 07 2008 - 12:36 PM

I've read several books on the NASA space missions that occurred in the 1950s-70s. It's amazing that the notion of a 'race to the Moon' is still perpetuated in documentaries, when no actual race took place. After 1963, the Soviet Union fell woefully behind in the field of astronautics and the only 'contest' as it were, was in the U.S.'s attempt of a manned Moon landing by the end of the 60s.

#5 of 7 OFFLINE   Ken Seeber

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Posted October 07 2008 - 12:58 PM

If it helps your decision any, I completely disagree with Jim's assessment. There's a lot of material presented at a pretty fast pace, but the editing is in no way distracting or "MTV style."

#6 of 7 OFFLINE   Steven Wesley

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Posted October 07 2008 - 01:03 PM

I very much enjoyed this series, mainly because of all the NASA footage that really hadn't been seen before. I didn't think the editing was too quick or distracting. It was well-produced... I just wish it was longer!
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#7 of 7 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 07 2008 - 03:42 PM

I understand the point you are getting at, but I think it is unfair to consider the 'race' non-existant. While we can reflect now upon the plentiful setbacks that the Soviet's suffered after the pole position they took in space exploration, at the time (when Kennedy made his speech), it was indeed a race against the Soviets (and time) and the problems the Soviets faced in their program were largely unknown (even at the classified level). I have even seen some documentaries that cast doubt on many of the claims the Soviets made. But for for years, a 'race' is exactly how those working within NASA, the military and the people understood it. But, again, your point is a reasonable one as the latter part of the 60's became about a national quest and hunger to achieve something as fantastic as landing a man on the moon and coming home.
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