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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Science > Space > The Race To The Moon (History Channel set)

The History Channel Presents “The Race to the Moon”


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: C+     Main Program: B



If nothing else, The History Channel’s collection The Race to the Moon reminds viewers of the possibilities that space travel hold —and the possibilities that have been missed, looked over and shelved.


Space flight fascinated the public in the 1950’s, regardless if someone was from the United States, the Soviet Union or Europe.  The ability to soar into the heavens given the technological breakthroughs of the past decade seemed to be closer to a reality than ever before.  And it was thanks to the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the arms race that the United States government finally got behind some sort of program to make space exploration a reality, with the ultimate short-term goal being to put a man on the moon.


The Race to the Moon chronicles this pursuit.  Spread over two discs are four programs of varying interest. On disc one is the longest and most interesting of the programs, “Failure is Not an Option.”  This 91-minute History Channel special focuses on the unsung heroes of the space race, the mission controllers.


A central part of the program is Gene Kranz, one of the first NASA flight directors (who was also portrayed by Ed Harris in Apollo 13) who was witness to the genesis of NASA and the United States’ space program, from Mercury to the Apollo missions.  The program itself concerns itself with the United States’ pursuit of some sort of space program—including its many early failures and blunders—to the heroics of the Apollo 13 mission.


Loaded with archival footage from inside mission control and the cockpits of numerous space capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, “Failure is Not an Option” is a thoroughly interesting vantage point on the most crucial period of the American space program.  But while stimulating, it’s ultimately a little too long. Rather than discussing the events post-Apollo 11 (the mission that put the first man on the moon), the program should have concluded with the events of Apollo 11—the set is titled The Race to the Moon, after all.  Once Apollo 11 and the US beat the Soviets to the moon, the race was over. And so should have been “Failure is Not an Option.”


On disc one is the set’s only extras: a commentary with Kranz, the writer/producer/co-director of “Failure is Not an Option” Rushmore DeNooyer and editor/co-producer Tony Bacon and a photo gallery.  Both are interesting, providing even more insight on the events chronicled in the program.


Disc two house three features: “Code Name: Project Orion,” “Modern Marvels: Apollo 13” and “Modern Marvels: The Space Shuttle.”  Now, while these three features offer interesting companion pieces to the past of NASA and the American space program documented in the disc one feature, the three features here are marred by dated content.  On “Project Orion” and “The Space Shuttle,” especially, there are references to the “future” of the space program, including a new shuttle and the International Space Station.  As anyone that follows the space program knows, the ISS has been up and running for some time now, and the space shuttle program has been shelved since the 2002 Columbia disaster.


The reason for these problems comes from the programs being made a decade or so ago.  That’s OK in the case of “Project Orion.”  The program deals with a super-secret program initiated in the early 1950s to use atomic weapons to propel a 10-story high space capsule full of hundreds of people and animals into the far reaches of our solar system (one of its goals was to go to the moons of Saturn by 1970).  As someone interested in the space program, this was an eye-opening document on an aspect of the space race that was classified, forgotten about, declassified, discussed briefly, then forgot about again.  By virtue of its content, then, its dated content is excusable.


Not on “The Space Shuttle” program, however.


Made in 1994, the most recent event featured in the space shuttle’s history is the destruction of the Challenger (which happened in 1986, by the way).  There is some talk about future designs of a shuttle that takes off more akin to an airplane (something NASA has been talking about for more than a decade) and the future of the space shuttle program in the face of the Challenger disaster.


If this program were an honest-to-goodness documentary, like “Failure is Not an Option,” then its dated nature could be excused.  However, because it’s something that is meant to highlight the modernity of the program, there is no reason why a more up-to-date program on the space shuttle couldn’t be included.  Combine that with the program on the overexposed Apollo 13 mission, another program produced a while ago and, to be fair, well before the film Apollo 13, and you have an interesting, if not uneven set of programs included.


Surely The History Channel has produced more than four programs on the space program at the time this set was issued.  If not, that’s a crime tantamount to the relegation of the American manned space program to do research in the Earth’s orbit rather than shooting for landing on Mars or traveling past the Asteroid Belt.


As far as the visual quality of the set goes, the programs are immaculate and the archived footage is pristine.  There is a bit of wear and tear here and there on some of the older programs and the old footage, but then there are films from the ‘50s that look like they were shot yesterday.  The video may not have some of the damage of the film, but the film has better definition.  Sound quality is equally appealing with Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo that usually offers Pro Logic surrounds.  Because these are television programs, there isn’t much happening in the way of sound effects or things that will utilize the surround sound system, but that doesn’t take away from the crisp and clean audio presentation on the set.


All in all, The Race to the Moon is an interesting if not flawed set.  It neither stays strictly within the confines of the race to the Moon nor ventures to far off into the future of NASA and the American space program.  But, on at least disc one, there are interesting documents presented about the past of one of the most important — and unfairly neglected — aspects of American government and exploration.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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