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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Science > Space > Gemini (Spacecraft set)

Project Gemini: A Bold Leap Forward (Spacecraft Films)


Picture: B-     Sound: C     Extras: B     Film:    B



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 vessel. 


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 similarities.  


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        


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