"When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions" Blu-ray Review

October 02, 2008 by Zach Demeter

A mini-series that premiered in June, When We Left Earth was an exciting series for Discovery Channel as it saw the full participation of NASA, who also provided a plethora of footage for the series as well as this home video release. Throughout the six-part mini-series we received newly recorded comments from those directly involved with the missions, as well as vintage footage pulled from NASA command as well as on-board the shuttles themselves. As impressive as it all was to see, the series gave us an even more fascinating look into not only the missions themselves, but how we prepared for them.

“Since the dawn of mankind, we have stared up at the lights in the sky and wondered…Now join the heroic men and women who have dared the impossible on some of the greatest adventures undertaken –the quest to reach out beyond Earth into the great unknown of space! To celebrate 50 years of incredible achievements, the Discovery Channel has collaborated with NASA to reveal the epic struggles, tragedies and triumphs in a bold chapter of human history. Along with the candid interviews of the people who made it happen, never-before-seen film footage from the NASA archives – including sequences on the board the actual spacecraft in flight --- has been carefully restored, edited and compiled for this landmark collection.”

The above description was pulled directly from the jacket of the packaging, as there is quite frankly no better way to describe this wonderful mini-series. While I was about twenty years too late to the party for the original moon landing, I’ve grown up hearing the famous quotes from the Armstrong and Aldrin walk and seeing various films and documentaries about space flight over the years. It’s always been a fascinating area of history to me and watching these documentaries was nothing short of a treat. What I never realized prior to watching this, however, was just how flat out dangerous all of the space travel we did in the 60s and 70s really was.

While the series is light on actual footage of space itself, it is loaded with new interviews and archival footage provided by NASA. This gives us a truly fantastic look into the early days of NASA and if you’re like me you’ll be completely shocked at how primitive the instruments we used to make it to the moon were. The conspiracy theories about the landings may have been justified (if they weren’t completely obliterated by Mythbusters, anyway), as there is really no conceivable way that we were able to do what we did with the technology we had available to us back then. John Young, one of the astronauts interviewed for this mini-series, even remarked that “we were too young and too stupid to know if it was a safe mission.” It’s just amazing to think we were able to do all we did with the little we had available to us.

One great element of this mini-series is how frank and candid everyone is about their experiences with NASA back in its early days. They freely admit that what they were doing was dangerous and several of the astronaut’s remark how scary and hazardous the whole concept was. The mini-series covers the Mercury, Gemini , and Apollo (but oddly not Apollo 15) missions, but finishes up with the Skylab project. It’s all just an incredibly fascinating documentary that remains enthralling from beginning to end. While near five hours of NASA history may sound like a lot, you will quickly find after watching this set that it honestly didn’t feel like enough. Highly Recommended.

The Blu-ray
By way of Image Entertainment, When We Left Earth arrives on the Blu-ray format in a four disc set. The set itself comes with a foil reflective slipcover, with the same art and descriptions underneath. Inside the packaging are the four discs in an Elite case. Included on the reverse of the jacket are the disc contents and a fold out booklet lists the disc contents in detail, including the extras found on each of the discs as well as the all-bonus content fourth disc. Menus are simple and easy to navigate, with pop-up menus available throughout all of the content on the set.

Video for the set arrives in an AVC encoded 1.78:1 1080i transfer. I wanted to say it’d be beautiful and remarkable in so many ways, but truth be told the series is made up of mostly archival footage that, while restored, just doesn’t look like HD. The newly recorded interviews are pristine clarity, but the old NASA footage is loaded with grain and the occasional distortion, so there isn’t a whole lot to actually “wow” you here. Sad to say there’s no benefit of getting this series on Blu-ray over DVD, as the interviews aren’t exactly required HD viewing. Of course the transfer still looks better than the standard DVD fare, but since it’s only a few dollars more than the standard DVD edition, you may as well just pick this release up instead. Audio is presented in 5.1 surround, but like the video it’s not all that immersive—it’s mostly front channel focused, with the music only occasionally traveling to the surrounds. Although the blast-off segments do really sound quite impressive as they fill the room with the launch sounds.

Extras are spread across the four discs in the set. Sadly the extras, provided by NASA, all appear to just be upscaled 480i/p footage, so don’t expect any clarity jump here. On the first disc we have "Highlights from the NASA Film 'Four Days of Gemini 4'" (6:39), interviews with astronaut Michael Collins and space suit engineer Joe Kosmo and mission clips from the Mercury/Gemini missions. Disc two houses "NASA FILM HIGHLIGHTS: Apollo 13: Houston, We've Got a Problem" (9:09), interviews with astronaut Al Bean and flight director Gene Krantz and mission clips of the Apollo missions. Disc three contains "NASA Film Highlights: Skylab: The First 40 Days" (7:38), interviews with astronaut Shannon Lucid, aerospace engineer James Crocker and Skylab, Shuttle and Hubble mission clips.

We aren’t done with the extras yet, however! The fourth and final disc of the set is packed with original NASA films, which include "Freedom 7" (28:14), "Friendship 7: John Glenn" (58:10), "Proud Conquest: Gemini 7 & 6" (29:13), "Apollo 8 Debrief" (27:22), and "The Flight of Apollo 11" (28:26). All of the films are quite grainy and fuzzy in nature, but they’re still a lot of fun to watch. These, as with the previous discs one through three extras, are presented in upscaled and pillarboxed 1080i.

Overall a solid set that comes Recommended. These pieces have a great level of rewatchability if you’re really into the history of NASA and to be able to see footage previously seen only by those inside of NASA is just fantastic.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

 

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