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DVD Review - When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

September 30th, 2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (available on DVD and Blu-ray) is a documentary series from the Discovery Channel and NASA that covers the major parts of NASA's human space program from beginning to end. It includes an incredible amount of archival footage that is sometimes fascinating, and frequently jaw-dropping.

The series consists just about entirely of archival footage and interviews with the astronauts and the mission control team from NASA's major missions since the 1960s. And the footage is consistently amazing, from in-cockpit film of the first Gemini flights, through the Apollo missions, Skylab, and the Shuttle program. While some early film has deteriorated, the overall quality is astonishing. It's fascinating to see new footage of Apollo, the most famous part of NASA's history, and the additional tape often provides insight into the experience for the crew and ground team. Some standouts include in-flight film taken by the crews of the Apollo missions, the scenes in mission control during Apollo 13, and the reactions in mission control as it became clear that the Challenger had been lost with all crew. On a good screen, the visuals are frequently breathtaking. I was reviewing the DVD version of the show, so I don't know what the Blu-ray experience is like... but I would recommend picking the Blu-ray if you have a player, because you're unlikely to see much better visuals than this of America's space program, outside of the IMAX films.

There are a couple of curious omissions. In particular, there's no mention of 1975's Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and actually very little mention of the Russian and other international programs at all. I assume this was due to time constraints, and it's certainly true to say that each episode runs through the various triumphs and tragedies at a breakneck pace. But it would have been great to put together extended episodes for the DVD.

What the DVD does add to the TV series is a lot more original material -- more than four hours in total. This is a mixture of clips from various missions, press conferences and interviews, and sequences from NASA's documentaries about Gemini, Apollo and Skylab. In truth, these are worthwhile additions mainly for a sense of history, and even I, a total space nut, couldn't sit through them all.

On the downside, the series is less of a documentary and more of a promotional film for NASA. There are occasional references to problems. Of course, it's hard to ignore the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and the initial problems with the Hubble Space Telescope are covered fairly well. But there's little in the way of serious discussion about the politics behind NASA's programs, nor of NASA's goals. While the Hubble Space Telescope has been a major scientific success, it's harder to say the same about the International Space Station, and, amazing machine though the Shuttle may be, it has barely advanced human exploration of space, while costing an astonishing amount of money. Touching on these subjects would, of course, have distracted from the beautiful pictures, but would have also made for a less lightweight show. On the other hand, that would also have made it less accessible for younger audiences -- if I were eleven again, I would rate this just about the best show I'd ever seen.

There are a couple of other criticisms. First, almost all the interviewees are crewmembers or from the mission control team. It would have been nice to get the perspective of a broader cross-section of the huge teams that worked on these projects. At one point, someone mentions that 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program... but one never gets even the slightest sense of that when watching the rest of the show. (If you want to get a more complete picture of the Apollo program, you might also want to pick up HBO's miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, by the way.) The other problem is the incessant music. Every take-off and landing is accompanied by pretty much the exact some rousing tune. I think it might have been less of a distraction when watching the original broadcasts, but it really became irritating when watching a couple of episodes back to back on the DVD.

In spite of these flaws, it's easy to recommend When We Left Earth for any space enthusiast. The quality and sheer quantity of the footage included makes the four disc set worth the price. There's a real sense of history to this series that will satisfy anyone who's a fan of space travel, and wants to get a good complete history of NASA's manned space missions.

- Bruce Nash (

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