Project Gemini: A Bold Leap
Picture: B- Sound: C Extras: B Film:
With President Bush’s
declaration that Americans will once again step foot on the Moon with an eye to
a manned flight to Mars, a new space age is upon us. The proposition of space travel both captures
the imagination and troubles financial analysts. The substantial cost of space exploration
requires strong public appeals by administrators to suggest we should go to
space instead of funding other terrestrial projects. The NASA Archive three-disc set on Project Gemini rekindles public
interest in a bold return to space.
This three disc box set
provides an extensive video archive on the entire Gemini Mission. Caught between the groundbreaking missions of
Project Mercury (America’s first sojourn into space) and the enthralling
achievements of Project Apollo (the actual lunar landings), Project Gemini
barely registers on the fascination scale.
This box set corrects this historical injustice by promoting the
significance of Project Gemini as a “the Bridge to the Moon.” In order to achieve lunar landing, scientists
and engineers had to be certain humans could survive extended space flight as
well as complete an in-flight space rendezvous.
These archives are a compilation of various media that recorded the
Gemini Missions, from training to launch to splashdown.
Disc One is a compelling
documentary that outlines all twelve of the Gemini missions. The film is rather balanced in its accounts
of the shortcomings of specific missions, but it accentuates its
successes. The history of Project Gemini
is narrativized in such a fashion as to valorize NASA’s efforts to overcome
various technical difficulties (anything less would come as a surprise). Set against the numerous successes of the
Soviet space agency, which boasted the first artificial satellite, the first
woman in space, and the first space walk, the Americans were determined to achieve
a greater astronomical achievement: a lunar landing. Although the documentary highlights the
American-Soviet Space Race, rarely does it focus on the political and social
context that drove the specific missions.
However, the underlying justifications for each mission are decidedly
political; the narrator (John Willyard) is clear to accent the accomplishment
of each mission and how it surpassed the Soviet successes. For example, Gemini VIII, piloted by the soon
to be famous Neil Armstrong, was the first spacecraft to dock with another
The importance of the
Space Race is clearly conveyed through the number and frequency of
missions. The Gemini Project was
completed in less than two years, with a total of twelve missions; a turnaround
rate for manned space flight unheard of today.
The documentary, written by Andrew Chaikin, author of “A Man on the
Moon,” focuses primarily on the goals of each mission and the astronauts who
flew them; astronauts who become more famous for their trips to the Moon. Most of the documentary is clips from the
training sessions, various launches, spacewalks, ocean recoveries, and press
conferences. All very well put together
from the NASA archives, but clearly produced with their blessing. Without being too cynical (as a champion of
the space program), the documentary protects the image of NASA and its
astronaut, regardless of how history remembers the shortcomings of our nation’s
finest. Most notably, Gus Grissom, the
pilot of the first manned Gemini mission (III), is famous for not only for
being one of the first Americans in space, but also for the sinking of his
Mercury capsule. The narrator retells
the incident faulting a premature firing of the escape hatch which caused the
capsule to flood and summarily sink.
History, and for one who have seen the
Right Stuff, tells a more ambiguous story, positing that the sinking of the
vessel was a result to human panic.
The other two discs are
solid archives, but are most interesting to those who are fascinated by the
mundane aspects of space travel. Disc
two and three chronicle footage from all of the Gemini missions, but not always
with sound or narration. A number of the
launch sequences, which are indeed fascinating, are often a series of shots of
the same launch from different angles.
Also, an astronaut trying on spacesuits and spacewalking has the same
monotonous quality. To take nothing away
from these various historical achievements, once you have seen on mission, very
little changes. By Apollo XIII, only two
missions after the historic first lunar landing, the public became rather bored
with routine space travel. Even today,
with the exception of the two shuttle disasters, very few American were aware
of current shuttle missions. But that is
the duality of space exploration, when we witness a technological or scientific
triumph, the success is unparalleled, but routine activities that lead to such
an achievement are rather achingly methodical.
However, treatment given to each mission is nuanced to accent footage
that highlight a given setback or success which helps undercut the
If nothing else, these
discs are wonderful historical records accessible to anyone interested in the
history of space travel. The Spacecraft
Films DVD collection (under the banner of 20th Century Fox) also has
a number of other sets on the Mercury and Apollo Projects. The total running time of the three discs is
over six hours and includes extras about Titan launchings and astronaut
survival training. Evaluating DVDs such
as these incorporates some difficulty.
The quality of the picture is not very good, but that is more of a
limitation in the source material. There
is only so much one can do with a 1960 16 mm camera in space with little
lighting. The same holds true for the
sound. However, the power of these DVDs
lies with their authenticity; outside of the narration on the first disc, all
other footage has the original sound.
And even if it is not the greatest transfer, the DVDs capture the gritty
and fascinating reality of the era.
- Ron Von Burg