The History Channel Presents “The Race to the Moon”
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
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
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
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.