Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Man Must Explore

Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.

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One of the joys of DVD is that it allows for material that doesn't work in the traditional linear format of a movie or TV show. DVDs of movies rarely use such features such as seamless branching and user-controlled multiple camera angles. But these features allow for great flexibility when it comes to offbeat or unusual programming.

One wonderful example is the series of NASA DVDs released by Spacecraft Films, a small organization run by Mark Gray, a 20 year TV veteran, whose father worked as a NASA contractor during the heady days of the Apollo program. Gray's team has gone through NASA's voluminous archives of 16 and 35mm footage from the golden era of the space program in the 1960s and early 1970s, and is assembling them into two, three, and even six disc DVD sets devoted to each mission or spacecraft. While they were originally aimed at diehard space buffs, these discs began to be distributed by Fox Home Entertainment last year, which has surely been a godsend for Spacecraft. I've seen their titles in Target, Borders, and other somewhat surprising locations given the type of material, which is more encyclopedic and archival in its nature than the rapid-fire pacing of Ron Howard's Apollo 13.

Two Most Popular Titles: Apollo 11 and 13

While Spacecraft Films have discs on Project Gemini, the Saturn rockets, and other Apollo missions, it's a safe bet that their most popular titles are their set of three Apollo 11 discs, and set of three Apollo 13 discs.

While the former -- titled, logically enough, "Apollo 11: Men On The Moon" -- is a powerful reminder of the triumphs of the space program, the latter -- titled, "The Real Story" -- is a more frustrating collection (if only because of inevitable comparisons between Ron Howard's spectacular 1995 movie).

The DVD begins with an enjoyable and well thought out 43-minute documentary. But because the real astronauts were understandably more concerned with saving their skins than documenting their efforts, the three DVD set has more on-the-ground footage than images from space. But those images are quite interesting, not only because of what they show us about how the mission control teams dealt with the crisis, but also for what they tell us about American society in 1972.

Smoking was still commonplace and universally accepted. Even among astronauts, as original Mercury 7 astronaut and then-Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (in a horrid striped forest green polyester suit and pastel striped tie) lit up a thin brown cigarillo during a press conference, and tamped the ashes into one of a series of heavy glass ashtrays that NASA had put out for their representatives when meeting the press. (Other Spacecraft DVDs show men smoking pipes around in-construction Saturn Vs, something that would be unthinkable in today's world of equally sanitizing clean rooms and political correctness.)

The press itself was interesting to watch in Spacecraft's Apollo 13 DVDs: in contrast to the way today's media conducts itself while interacting with the president or the military, pre-Watergate 1970-era journalists didn't seem to be trying to play "gotcha" games with Slayton and other NASA representatives. And it's amusing to watch shots of them filing their stories via manual typewriters and telegraph machines.

Religion was an integral part of everyday life, as Milton Berle(!) asks for a moment of silent prayer during a packed baseball game at Yankee Stadium during the tense Apollo 13 crisis, and a Navy chaplain offers a prayer once the crew was safely on the deck of the USS Iowa Jima.

Saturn: Precision Better Than the Finest Watch

One of Spacecraft Films' most enjoyable titles is the Saturn V set. The Saturn V was one of the most staggering engineering achievements of the 20th century: built during an era in which computers occupied whole rooms, but had less power than the PC you're reading this on, it was, as President Kennedy would say at Houston's Rice University on September 12, 1962, even before the design was finalized, "a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch."

As Charles Murray and Catherine Cox noted in their classic book Apollo: The Race to the Moon, the Saturn V needed an almost equally amazing infrastructure to launch -- it was the essentially the length of a naval destroyer pitched on its end. To stack its stages together, NASA constructed its 525 feet wide by 716 feet high Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) (for comparison, Murray mentioned that the Statue of Liberty is 305-feet tall), at Merritt Island, Florida. The location was picked, among other reasons, because it was located next to a canal, since the only way the 138-foot high first stage of Saturn could be shipped from Boeing at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana was via barge.

Because President Kennedy's ten-year goal required an enormous amount of speed to achieve it, the VAB was built to assemble not just one Saturn V, but four of them, simultaneously, in all weather conditions. And then roll them out on a tracked 160X135 foot mobile transporter to pad 39A.

It's one thing to read about these feats; it's another to see them in still photos. But seeing them in action is a whole 'nother story entirely. All of the Spacecraft Films titles that cover the Saturn, whether it's the DVDs specifically devoted to them, or those that feature individual Apollo missions, cover the Saturns' spectacular launches from multiple angles. The Apollo 11 launch has a whopping 15 synchronized cameras, which can be viewed separately or in combination, via the DVD player's multiple angle feature and your remote control.

Man Must Explore

The Spacecraft Films Apollo 17 set is titled The End of the Beginning, which makes sense: Apollo 17 was, to date, the last manned flight to the moon, even though three Saturn Vs remained in the NASA inventory.

There were essentially two main reasons our first period of manned moon exploration ended. In a 2001 speech, Steven Hayward, the author of The Age of Reagan, explained the first:

Consider John F. Kennedy's great and enthusiastic challenge in 1961 to go to the moon before the decade was out. When we indeed reached the moon in 1969, as I relate in the book, many prominent liberals remarked that while the moon landing was impressive, we would have been better off spending the money to 'fix the cities' and for social programs on Earth. (The total cost of the moon landing, by the way, was equal to about three months worth of social spending in 1969.) Pat Moynihan confirmed this intellectual decay when he acknowledged in 1973 that 'Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.

The second reason is that the American public found manned spaceflight boring and somewhat anticlimactic, once Neil and Buzz had set foot on the Moon and returned.

Watching the TV broadcasts amidst all of the other material assembled by Spacecraft Films, I can sort of understand how they felt: in between Apollo's spectacular launches and nail-biting splashdowns, the stately pacing of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey seems far more true to life than the whiz-bang videogame feel of Star Wars.

But as the title of Spacecraft Films' Apollo 15 says, "Man Must Explore". Apollo was the end of the beginning as far as exploring other worlds was concerned. But we'll resume those activities…sooner or later.

Read this article on the Tech Central Station website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 20-Jan-05

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