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.