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From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 5 “Spider” and Part 6 “Mare Tranquilitatis”

The fifth episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon is about the development of the Lunar Module and its first flight with astronauts, Apollo 9. The episode is narrated by Grumman engineer Tom Kelly (played by Matt Craven), who led the Long Island-based team that developed the lunar lander. In the episode, Kelly directs the development of the Lunar Module from initial concept to its first successful test in Earth orbit.

This was always one of my favorite episodes of the series, and it holds up well. While most episodes of the show are astronaut-centric, this one is not. Tom Kelly and his engineering team are the main characters, and the astronauts don’t even appear until halfway through the episode. Many of the episodes of the show are based on Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, but this one is not. It isn’t clear to me what the main source of the episode actually is, as Tom Kelly’s own memoir (Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module) didn’t appear until a couple of years after this episode was made.

This is the highest-rated episode of the show on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking it. What’s so good about it? One factor is certainly that it puts the engineers front-and-center in the narrative. People who like space and like to watch space shows tend to be STEM-types, and they appreciate seeing people like them on screen.

A memorable scene in the episode is a montage about designing the lunar module. The Grumman design team starts with a scale model of the basic NASA concept, and over the course of the scene they refine it into a practical design by reducing the legs from five to four, changing the window design, changing the hatch design, and replacing the heat-shielding with mylar insulation. It’s a scene about engineering, but it’s also about creativity and the creative process in general. As Kermit the Frog says, everybody needs creativity, not just people in obviously creative professions. When I was studying engineering in college (and watching my From the Earth to the Moon DVDs), I needed creativity to tackle problems in my classes and projects. But now as a historian, I still need creativity just as much. I need it for thinking historically while analyzing sources, for figuring out how to present information and arguments in professional writing or blog posts, and for deciding how to teach facts and concepts to undergraduate students. I think this is the fundamental reason why the episode resonates with so many people.

In Part 6, the series finally makes it to the surface of the moon with the Apollo 11 landing. The episode is structured around the coverage of the landing by fictional news anchor Emmett Seaborn of NTC News. A previously-recorded interview with the astronauts is intercut with flashback scenes of the training and preparation for the flight. A couple of these flashbacks are great scenes, including Neil Armstrong crashing the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (something he did in real life). The episode then shifts to the lunar landing itself, culminating with Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the lunar surface.

There are some strange directorial decisions in the episode. For example, the launch of Apollo 11 is shown in jump cuts, and the final seconds of the countdown are ticking off while the astronauts are still in the van driving to the pad. Also, the found-footage camera work in the interview of the astronauts is jerky and distracting. On the whole, though, this is a solid episode. The filmmakers were able to add real human drama to an event that is familiar and has an ending that everybody knows. (Spoiler: They landed safely on the moon, then came home.)

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 3 “We Have Cleared the Tower” and Part 4 “1968”

The third episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is about the return-to-flight mission Apollo 7. More than a year and a half after the tragic Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the new Apollo spacecraft, commanded by veteran Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra. The episode portrays the preparations for launch from the perspective of a documentary film crew with access to the launch site and training facilities. The episode ends with (spoiler alert! But it’s in the title) the successful launch of the mission.

As a partial found-footage movie (the footage shot by the documentary crew), the episode does not have a very clear storyline and it fairly meanders toward the inevitable launch. This is not a strong episode for that reason, but there are some interesting meanders along the way. From the Earth to the Moon is, on the whole, rather astronaut-centric, partly because its main source material is the book A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikin. In this episode, the film crew interviews some supporting staff of the space program, including a meteorologist, the astronauts’ nurse Dee O’Hara, a geeky computer technician, and the wisecracking German pad director Gunther Wendt.

In terms of visuals, “We Have Cleared the Tower” is a mixed bag. There are some effective location shots at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, with the defunct facility digitally de-aged and a CG Saturn 1B rocket inserted into the frame. The compositing isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for suspension of disbelief. The studio clearly did not build a physical model of a Saturn 1B (possibly because it would only be needed for this episode), and the CG model looks terrible close-up.

While Part 3 is mediocre, Part 4 “1968” is definitely one of the strongest of the series. “1968” is about the flight of Apollo 8, the first to fly around the moon, and the calamitous year in which the mission took place. The episode intercuts staged scenes of the preparations for Apollo 8 with archival footage of the upheavals of 1968: the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Prague Spring, uprisings in France, and the election of Richard Nixon. Use of archival footage can be a crutch or a shortcut around limited resources, but here it is totally effective.

Except for some of the archival footage, the episode is filmed in black and white; color first comes to the frame when the engines of the Saturn V booster ignite at the beginning of the mission. The mission of Apollo 8 is filmed in color, while scenes taking place on the ground continue to be filmed in black and white. The use of color represents the message of the episode: Apollo 8 transcended the problems of the Earth, and in the words of one congratulatory telegram sent to NASA, the mission “saved 1968.”

It was surreal to watch “1968” in 2020 (when I did this rewatch). Both 1968 and 2020 were years of crisis, with at least one common element: civil unrest and violence in the streets. Living through 2020 gave me an idea of what 1968 might have felt like. If only 2020 had had an Apollo 8 too.

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 1 “Can We Do This?” and Part 2 “Apollo One”

The first episode of From the Earth to the Moon, “Can We Do This?”, narrates the beginning of the race to the moon. The episode opens with Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space (sixty years ago next month) and the Americans’ reaction to it. The episode goes on to portray the first flight of the Mercury program and a couple of selected missions from Project Gemini: Gemini 4 (the first spacewalk), Gemini 8 (the first docking, followed immediately by a malfunction that caused the spacecraft to spin out of control), and Gemini 12 (the last mission of the program). When the episode ends, astronaut chief Deke Slayton calls the astronauts together to brief them on plans for a manned landing on the moon.

Narratively, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, but its main purpose is to set the stage for the stories to come in subsequent episodes. The four space missions featured in this episode all introduce a character who will play an important role in one or more of the later episodes. The first Mercury flight is piloted by Alan Shepard, who flies to the moon in the ninth episode. The spacewalker on Gemini 4 is Ed White, who dies in the Apollo 1 fire in the next episode. Neil Armstrong is on Gemini 8 and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini 12; they will be the first men to land on the moon in the sixth episode.

A much stronger episode – one of the best of the show – is Part 2, “Apollo One.” This episode tells the tragic story of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a ground test of the space capsule on January 27, 1967. The episode opens with a well-staged reenactment of the fire itself. The main plotline of the episode revolves around the investigation into the disaster and its repercussions within NASA and North American Aviation, the contractor that built the spacecraft.

The first thing that I noticed when watching these episodes for the first time in more than a decade was the production values. The show was produced for television in the late-nineties, and it looks dated now. Although the production values were higher than for full-season episodic television at the time, they are lower than for TV now. (Within the past ten years or so, TV shows have gotten into a production values arms race. The results are impressive but may not be sustainable.) The episodes are shot in the aspect ration 4:3, to fit on pre-HDTVs. Characters talk about things, or hear them on the radio, rather than seeing the events themselves. Events are also portrayed by stock footage or period photographs, with the show’s actors photoshopped in over the real people where necessary. The production clearly had limited resources, and sometimes it shows.

Two aspects of the episodes compare favorably to TV shows now: the music and some of the effects. The Mercury and Gemini spacecraft in the first episode are portrayed by physical models rather than CGI. Although the compositing isn’t always as good as it could be, the models look great. They have a physicality and even warmth that CGI models never seem to be able to match. As for the show’s music, it is beautiful and stirring and, what’s more, made with real instruments, not computers.

When watching the first two episodes, I noticed some errors that I had never seen before. They are nothing major, but they served as a reminder that I was, after all, watching a TV show made in the late nineties, not real space missions from the sixties. Here are two errors that I noticed:

  • In Part 1, Gemini 8 is over the Indian Ocean and heading east when it spins out of control. This is mentioned in a line of dialogue, and it is also shown on the map in Mission Control. And yet the effects shots show the spacecraft flying over the eastern Mediterranean, with the unmistakable island of Cyprus clearly visible!
  • Part 2 has some nice location shots from the Mall in Washington, DC. One is shot at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near the Capitol and the other is shot at the other end of the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool. There are a couple of nineties-era cars visible in the background in these scenes.

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