The Discovery Channel began their six hour miniseries When We Left Earth on Sunday. The series is a dramatic look at the history of NASA, through interviews with the astronauts involved in the space program and through never before seen footage that was shot.
Overall, the series didn’t really explain anything new – there are no earth shattering revelations on how the space program was conducted or how we made it into space, nor is there anything that really hasn’t been covered before in dramatic presentations.
What really sets When We Left Earth apart from other documentaries and books is the use of new and breathtaking footage that was shot throughout the time when we were going into space. One of my favorite shots is a downward pointed camera attached to a rocket as it lifts off from the pad. This series really pulls in the look and feel of the space program during the 1960s, and it does so brilliantly, with clear, crisp footage that brings the space program.
Historywise, this is a very broad and somewhat superficial look at how the space program progressed. This is primarily a look at NASA and the space race. Because of this, the program has limited itself somewhat to how the space program is examined – there is very little talk about the Russian achievements when it came to breaking out of the Earth’s atmosphere, just brief mentions, especially when it came to how it affected the American astronauts.
This series does take a good look at the astronauts in the Mercury and Gemini programs. Seeing video of the astronauts while they interacted with one another was something that I haven’t seen a whole lot of. Particularly helpful is the interviews that are conducted with the astronauts – Some familiar faces from the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, and some new ones, particularly Neil Armstrong, who very rarely grants interviews – it was very interesting to see him talk to the camera.
These first two episodes looked at the Mercury and Gemini programs. These were the first steps that the US took to getting to space, and we see the trials and errors in the early steps, although again, there is much glossed over. I don’t remember hearing the name Van Braun at all, nor the early developments of the rockets, although there was much attention to their failure rates.
The big missions are gone over in more detail (along with stellar footage), of the Alan Shepherd’s first flight, John Glenn’s flight, the first American Spacewalk and docking maneuvers. There’s a pretty good look at each one, although there are a lot of elements that are only looked at briefly. The best source that I’ve seen when it comes to this era of space history is Into That Silent Sea by Francis French and Colin Burgess. But, this documentary is a good start and look when it comes to examining this broad frontier.
The strengths in this documentary are vast – the footage here is absolutely stunning, beautiful even. What we see here is an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the space program. While the documentary doesn’t go into an academic level of information and research as one finds in the Outward Odyssey series.