From Earth to the Moon; the Original HBO series.
A few years back, I unearthed a hidden gem at Zia Records in Tucson, my all time favorite of a dying breed, the local record store. That gem was HBO’s From Earth to the Moon box set, and it is still well worth hunting down. Hosted by Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, it originally ran as a twelve part mini series covering the US space program through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo series of missions. Now that Apollo 11s’ 40th is winding down, (will anybody mark the splashdown?) the LRO and LCROSS satellites are in lunar orbit, and the Ares X-1 is ramping up for its first test flight later this year, its a good time to reflect on how we got here. Recently, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean remarked on NPR Sci-Fri that when you watch missions like the recent repair of the Hubble on STS-125, its hard to imagine that there was a time that we barely knew how to set foot out side the spacecraft. When Kennedy challenged us to go to the Moon, a whole new skill set had to be mastered. We had to get good at docking, rendezvous, space walking, and tracking both in Earth and lunar orbit, all with less computing power than exists on your cell phone. Of course, techno-geeks were real techno-geeks in those days, slide rule, pocket protector and all. And I just remember when floppy disks were really floppy…
And don’t forget, at the time of Kennedy’s speech, we hadn’t even orbited the Earth yet; Alan Sheppard’s’ first Mercury flight was a ballistic suborbital trajectory. This is covered in the first episode, Can we do This? A lot was learned in a very short time.
From Earth to the Moon; A video excerpt.
But don’t expect From Earth to the Moon to be twelve episodes of Apollo XIII…each one stands as a unique story in its own right. Feel free to watch them out of order! The tragedies, as well as the triumphs are recalled; the disaster of Apollo 1 is given treatment in Part 2, as well as the heady moments of Apollo 11. Naturally, the directors couldn’t leave out the narrow escape of Apollo 13 from disaster, but rather than re-hash the movie, a fresh take is given from the angle of the Earthbound journalists, engineers, and families and is inter-spliced with real footage.
Our fave? I loved “That’s all There is,” the largely untold saga of Apollo 12, the second mission to the Moon. Narrated in the words of the aforementioned Bean, it shows that the rookie can indeed sometimes save the day. (Apollo 12 was hit by lightning shortly after take-off).
But it is some of the unique angles and perspectives that really shine. The story of the strain on all the astronauts’ families is covered in the episode The Original Wives Club; the sad fact was, not many astronauts survived the space program with their marriages intact. The episode 1969 covering the Christmas Apollo 8 mission that was the first to orbit the Moon presents the unique angle of the turmoil of 1968. From the Vietnam War, to multiple assassinations, to the debacle of the Democratic National Convention, Apollo 8 was the one good thing that happened in that beleaguered year. (I was busy being born…)
The creation of the Lunar Module in the episode Spider shows just how unlikely and yet innovative its design truly was. Few spacecraft are as unique, and the mission design was a a major breakthrough as a concept. The LM was troubled by short deadlines, technical difficulties, and pressure to lighten the load to meet mission perimeters. From Earth to the Moon tells the brilliant story of how these engineers preserved and ultimately came through.
Part 10: Galileo was Right, is a close runner up for our favorite. This covers the mission that perhaps did the most true science; Apollo 15. The entire episode shows the excitement of field geology and science in general. Use it to excite those freshmen Earth Science students to the wonders of geology.
The ending episode comes as a bit of a surprise; titled Le Voyage Dans La Lune, it shows early 20th century film director George Melies and his vision of traveling to the Moon. Produced in 1902, (just before the Wright Brothers flight) this shows just how much vision and technology has changed in the scant 60 years that separates the two events. Juxtaposed against the Apollo 17 mission, which proved to be the last manned Moon mission of the Apollo era, it poses the question we still ask today; when will we return to the Moon, and this time, will it be for good?
Keep an eye out for From Earth to the Moon at your local yard sale or Amazon seller, as its an excellent addition to any space junkies collection, and it still holds up well 10 (or 40) years later. And heck, its just plain inspiring to watch!
Astronauts at Surveyor 3 Landing Site. (Credit: NASA/Apollo 12).