Technology, History, and Place

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From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 9 “For Miles and Miles” and Part 10 “Galileo Was Right”

The ninth episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut, and the Apollo 14 mission that he commanded. After his suborbital space hop in 1961 (seen in the first episode), Shepard contracts an inner-ear disorder that affects his balance and prevents him from flying in space. After serving for a while in a management position in the astronaut office, he undergoes an experimental surgery that corrects his balance problems, allowing him to fly again. As the most senior astronaut of them all, he jumps straight to the front of the line and flies to the moon on Apollo 14. After a harrowing landing, he and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell touch down in the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon. After stepping on the surface of the moon for the first time, Shepard declares, “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.” The two astronauts go on to explore the moon and Shepard hits a golf ball with a tool handle, and the episode ends.

“For Miles and Miles” should be a stronger episode than it is. Alan Shepard’s story is a remarkable one, going as it did from triumph to a boring desk job and back to triumph, but his story arc isn’t given the space it needs to develop emotional weight. The episode seems to have trouble knowing what to focus on. The dramatic heart of the episode should be Shepard’s dealing with his condition and overcoming it, but this is crowded out by the usual astronaut bravado during scenes that take place on the ground. The Apollo 14 landing sequence is exciting, but it also feels repetitive because we have already seen an exciting landing in the Apollo 11 episode. (Apollo 14’s landing even reuses some of the same effects shots as Apollo 11.) Shepard’s declaration that he had made it at last should be the emotional climax of the episode, but it is quickly overshadowed by other mission events. After the golf shot, it’s fade to black and the episode just sort of ends.

The tenth episode of the show, “Galileo Was Right,” is about the Apollo 15 mission, the first of the longer J-series missions, which used the lunar rover for longer expeditions away from the Lunar Module. The episode focuses on the geological training for the astronauts and their backup crew. With the help of Caltech professor Lee Silver, Commander Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin learn how to understand the landscape and find representative samples of rocks. Meanwhile, an Egyptian geologist by the name of Farouk El-Baz trains Command Module Pilot Al Worden to describe and understand geological features while flying over them. Despite initial resistance to this training on the part of the astronauts, they, with the help of their teachers (and some montages) gain an understanding of geology that helps them find an especially old piece of the moon, Sample #15415 or the Genesis Rock.

“Galileo Was Right” is one of the best-written episodes of the series, and it’s one my favorites. If Part 5 “Spider” was about engineering and creativity, then this episode is about science, teaching, and learning. Not everyone is a scientist (I’m certainly not), but everybody has been a student, and we continue to learn throughout our lives. I appreciated this episode as a former student and a lifelong learner, and also as an educator. I liked seeing how the reluctant students in this episode came to see the value of what their teachers were teaching them. I aspire to be a Lee Silver or a Farouk El-Baz, and I would love to have the Dave Scott and Jim Irwin of this episode as my students.

Two other notes about these episodes. First, I haven’t mentioned the lunar surface sets yet, but they impressive! I remember reading that the sets were built inside an airship hangar in Tustin, California. The harsh lighting with black shadows was accomplished by shining a bank of studio lights into a parabolic mirror. Helium balloons rigged to the astronauts simulated one-sixth gravity. The shots don’t look exactly like the Apollo photographs, but they don’t need to. They are what I imagine the moon might look like if you were to see it with your own eyes, rather than through a Hasselblad camera.

The visual effects shots of the moon, alas, don’t look nearly as good. The moon is computer-generated, and it is obviously nineties CGI (and not good nineties CGI).

Another note: Something that the series missed exploring very much was the spiritual dimension of spaceflight, and these two missions could have provided an opportunity for that. While the series does feature a non-denominational, Judeo-Christian reading of the Book of Genesis from lunar orbit (Apollo 8) and a mainline Protestant communion on the lunar surface (Apollo 11), it leaves out some more adventurous forms of spirituality from the later missions. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell was interested in the paranormal. He performed ESP experiments during his spaceflight, and after leaving NASA he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to carry such investigations further. Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin had a very different spiritual experience. He was an evangelical Christian and saw God’s guidance in his mission, including in the providential discovery of the Genesis Rock. After leaving NASA, Irwin wrote and preached about his revived Christian faith. Tragically, his body suffered permanent physical damage during his strenuous moonwalks (a fact referenced briefly in this episode), leading to his death in 1991 at the age of 61.

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 7 “That’s All There Is” and Part 8 “We Interrupt This Program”

After Apollo 11, the first moon landing, there were six more Apollo missions, 12 through 17. The HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon has six episodes after the Apollo 11 episode, and each one deals in some way with one of the remaining six missions of the program. Part 7 “That’s All There Is” is about the Apollo 12 landing, and Part 8 “We Interrupt This Program” is about the near-disaster of Apollo 13.

Part 7 is narrated by Alan Bean (played by Alan Foley), the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12 and the fourth person to walk on the moon. The episode is narrated in a non-linear fashion, with Bean looking back at the mission just completed while in quarantine with his crewmates on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet after splashing down. Bean tells about the little (and not-so-little) mishaps of the mission, like when the rocket was struck by lightning during launch and when he fried the color TV camera by pointing it at the sun while he was setting it up on the moon. He also tells about some of the humorous aspects of the mission, like how Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon forced the returning moonwalkers to strip down to their birthday suits before he allowed them back into his spacecraft. The episode ends with the astronauts coming out of quarantine after their mission and driving off in their matching Corvettes, the best of friends.

This is a well-written and well-structured episode, and it does a good job weaving real-life elements of the mission (including everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph) into an engaging storyline. Even though it was a much more ambitious mission than Apollo 11, Apollo 12 just wasn’t as exciting to the public because landing on the moon was something that had already been done. The inherently anticlimactic nature of the mission is a central feature of the episode’s plot. When leaving the moon, Bean feels let down and wonders if that’s all there is, but at the end of the episode he decides that spending time with his friends is what life is all about.

Part 7 is the most lighthearted episode in the show, and for that reason it was one of my favorites to watch as a teenager. The humor doesn’t hold up quite as well for me now, though. The three crew members – Bean, Gordon, and mission commander Pete Conrad – are supposedly in their late thirties (Gordon had just turned 40 a month before the flight), but in the episode they seem like college students. There is a lot of corny humor in this show, and this episode is the corniest of them all.

By the way, Alan Bean might have been doomed to obscurity if it had not been for one thing – and I’m not referring to his being the first man to eat spaghetti on the moon. Bean became a prolific painter after his retirement from NASA, using acrylics to portray the entire moon landing program in a vivid visual style. He died in 2018, but his website is still up and running at www.alanbean.com.

Despite the corniness, Part 7 is still a great episode to watch. Part 8, on the other hand, was never an episode that I enjoyed watching. In fact, I almost skipped it in this rewatch because I remembered disliking it so much before, but I talked myself into watching it again because the point of a rewatch is to see how your perception of a show has changed, and that includes the bad episodes as well as the good ones.

Part 8, as I mentioned before, is about the Apollo 13 mission. Here the producers of the show were in something of a bind. They couldn’t tell the story of the mission in a straightforward manner, because that had already been done just three years before in a feature film, Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard (a producer on the HBO show) and starring Tom Hanks (executive producer of the show) as mission commander Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 had a budget of $52 million, and any episode of the show that tried to tell the same story with much more limited resources was bound to be a disappointment.

Instead, the Apollo 13 episode is about TV reporters trying to dig up stories about the mission while it is still in progress. The main character of the episode is Emmett Seaborn, a venerable host from NTC News. He clashes with a young new arrival in the newsroom, Brett Hutchins, who has a more aggressive approach to reporting, ambushing family members of the astronauts or spying on them from a neighbor’s yard. Seaborn and Hutchins have debates about ethics in journalism, but in the end it is the young upstart who prevails and gets to do the coveted post-splashdown interview with mission controller Gene Kranz.

I didn’t like the episode when I was a teenager, and I still don’t like it, but my reasons now are a little different from before. Earlier, I was annoyed that the central story of the episode is completely fictional. There never was an NTC News or an Emmett Seaborn or Brett Hutchins. Why waste my time with a fictional story? Now I don’t feel that the fictional nature of the story is a fatal flaw, but it needed to be done much better than it was. The audience isn’t given much of a reason to care about the dueling TV reporters. What are the stakes? At the end of the episode, when Emmett Seaborn stalks dejectedly down a corridor in Mission Control after losing his chance to interview Gene Kranz, it isn’t a great emotional moment. It’s mainly just boring. Emmett Seaborn works as a background character in other episodes (and he is played absolutely believably by Lane Smith), but he can’t carry an episode on his own.

Another disappointing aspect of the episode is the production values. As the episode takes place entirely on Earth, there are no effects shots and only a few sets or locations. The astronauts in space are represented only by transmissions from the spacecraft, but they sound unconvincing. When the transmissions are playing, mission updates are typed onto a black screen in an ugly computer font.

This was surely the cheapest episode to make in the whole series. The quality of the photography stands out as being particularly poor. Everything looks dingy and poorly-lit, even most of the scenes shot outdoors. At the end of the episode, mission controllers cheer when the Apollo 13 capsule lands safely, but the scene is depressing because this same moment looked and felt so much better in Apollo 13.

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.)

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