Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Apollo program (Page 1 of 2)

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 11 “The Original Wives Club” and Part 12 “Le voyage dans la lune”

The penultimate episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, “The Original Wives Club,” is the show’s most unique. While all the other episodes focus to a greater or lesser extent on male astronauts living in a men’s world, “The Original Wives Club” is about the women who were married to these men. The episode follows the wives of the “Next Nine,” from their arrival in Houston as their husbands prepared to fly the first Gemini missions, to the end of the Apollo program a decade later. Each of the nine wives gets a storyline: Marilyn Lovell supporting her husband as well as she could; Susan Borman struggling with alcoholism; Pat White dealing with anxiety and the death of her husband in the Apollo 1 fire; Barbara Young getting divorced as her husband prepared to fly to the moon on Apollo 16.

Although the episode doesn’t have a strong narrative, it is surprisingly effective. The episode uses a fashion show put on by the Next Nine wives (presumably around the time that they moved to Houston) as a framing device to introduce the characters. I remember finding this part soooooooo boring when I first saw the episode in middle school, but now I can see that it works from a narrative standpoint.

Given the producers’ decision to make each episode of the show a standalone TV movie about a specific theme, it makes sense that the astronaut wives would get their own episode rather than their storylines being integrated into plotlines throughout the show. (While the astronaut wives do appear in other episodes where the plot calls for them, some of the episodes are an absolute sausagefest.) Unlike most of the other episodes of the show, this one was directed by a woman, Sally Field (who also appears in one scene as Trudy Cooper).

Lacking a strong narrative throughline, the episode does drag in a few places, but there are also some great scenes. My favorite scene in the episode shows the two Pats (Pat McDivitt and Pat White) going to Mission Control to talk with their husbands in space during Gemini 4. Here the women are intruding upon a men’s realm, and mission controllers stand awkwardly as the women enter because they don’t know how else to respond.

The final episode of the show is “Le voyage dans la lune,” which is mainly about Apollo 17, the last moon landing, but it also has a storyline about the production of what may be the first science fiction film (and the namesake of the episode) in France in 1902. The Apollo 17 storyline has recreations of scenes from the final moon landing, as well as the actors wearing age makeup to portray the astronauts and mission controllers in the present day (i.e. the 1990s), looking back on their experiences in Apollo.

An episode with such divided attention could have been a disaster, but it works surprisingly well. Although it would have been nice to see the real Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, and Chris Kraft on screen in this episode, it made sense to use the actors from a continuity standpoint. (Gene Cernan and Chris Kraft both died fairly recently. Jack Schmitt is still alive.) This aspect of the episode is about memory, and how we think about the past that we experienced.

One weak aspect of the episode is how it explains the cancellation of the Apollo program—or rather, doesn’t explain it. In the show, the cancellation comes out of nowhere and is totally inexplicable. The 1990s Gene Cernan complains that we quit going to the moon just when we were getting good at it, and the audience is left feeling that the decision to stop going to the moon was irrational. It certainly does seem irrational from an astronaut-centric viewpoint, but it doesn’t in light of the broader domestic context of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As T.A. Heppenheimer explained in his excellent book The Space Shuttle Decision (available for free from NASA), the crises of the late 1960s (including some of those portrayed in the episode about 1968) caused the United States to shift its focus away from international affairs and toward domestic concerns. Flying missions to the moon was an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the US government could scarcely keep funding the missions in light of the ballooning costs of the Vietnam War and a renewed domestic focus on civil rights reform and social programs.

The 1902 storyline takes up a relatively short amount of the final episode’s running time, but it is time well-used. The storyline is narrated through another phony interview, this time of an assistant to the filmmaker Georges Méliès as he produces his short film about a trip to the moon. (The actual film is now very much in public domain, and there are several versions on YouTube. Here is one of them.) The assistant is played by Tom Hanks himself. The storyline seems to be autobiographical. Tom Hanks’s character worries that the film won’t work, that there are too many cuts and too much glue and the whole thing will just fall apart. I imagine Tom Hanks having much the same worries about his own film about travel to the moon. Will it hold together or fall apart?

On the whole, it holds together. There are some weak points, and a couple of weak episodes, but From the Earth to the Moon still holds up 23 years after it first aired.

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.

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