First Take: Discovery Channel Mini-series “When We Left Earth”

I finally got around to watching the first two episodes (saved on my DVR) of the Discovery Channel’s new mini-series, “When We Left Earth”, and so far I have to say I’m impressed. I’ve watched many TV specials, movies and documentaries about the U.S. space program (see my previous review of “In the Shadow of the Moon” ), most of them showing the same recycled NASA footage of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. “When We Left Earth” not only uses many images I’ve never seen before, but the inclusion of new recollections by many of the astronauts still living adds a personal touch missing from the previous films I’ve watched. Fortunately “When We Left Earth” includes comments by the normally reclusive Neil Armstrong. One of my major complaints with “In the Shadow of the Moon” was the absence of  Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. Not including Neil Armstrong’s thoughts and recollections on one of man’s biggest engineering achievements is like making a documentary on the Rolling Stones and not interviewing Mick Jagger.

Some of the film that I hadn’t seen before included more footage of astronaut Ed Whites first spacewalk by an American, and closeup shots of Gemini capsules 6 and 7 practicing the first rendezvous maneuvers ever attempted in space. The capsules are so close that you can clearly see astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford in Gemini 6 waving to Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, in Gemini 7, through the capsule windows. The fact that Discovery has transferred the archival NASA color footage into the high definition format made the blackness of space, the exterior details of the capsules, and the deep blue of Earth below even more spectacular on my high definition TV. 

Some of the footage shown of the astronauts training on the U.S. Navy
human centrifuge at Johnsville, PA, brought back nostalgic memories for
me. I worked in that centrifuge building for 15 years as a crew systems
engineer for the Navy, and my office was on the ground floor directly
below the cavernous room that held the astronaut-carrying gondola on the end of a 50-foot rotating arm.
(Sometimes when they weren’t running the centrifuge, we would play
basketball in the room using a portable backboard, or in the winter use
it as an indoor track to get some exercise during lunch.) That building
was built so well (and placed on solid bedrock), that most of the time I
could hardly tell when the centrifuge was running. However, ever few
years the bearings  on the main electric motor would start to wear, and
then I could notice a slight vibration in my office walls and ceiling
until new bearings were installed. There were reminders of the
groundbreaking human spaceflight research  done with this centrifuge throughout the
building.  Pictures of Mercury and Gemini astronauts who rode the
centrifuge, such as Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom hung
on the walls. I also remember going up to the “attic” area above the
main centrifuge room and found some of the original custom-fit
“couches” that each astronaut had made for their high-g runs, with
their individual names on them. I’m not sure what happened to those couches, but I hope some of them wound up in a museum. Alas, the history-making centrifuge at
Johnsville was eventually shut down when the Navy closed the base in 1996. It was too expensive to
operate, and had been replaced by more modern equipment for training Navy and Marine pilots in high-g environments. The building and the centrifuge are still there in Johnsville, PA and there has been talk recently of making it into a
museum to reflect it’s historical significance in the training of the first U.S. astronauts.

My congrats to the Discovery Channel and NASA for working together to producing a visually beautiful recap of the space program, along with relevant commentary from some of the astronauts, flight controllers, and engineers who made it happen.  If the remaining four hours of this mini-series continue with the high quality of footage and first-person commentary, I may be tempted to buy the series when it comes out on DVD. Though I may wait until it is released on Blu-Ray DVD to take advantage of the high definition format as seen on the broadcast.

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