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Image Entertainment presents
When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (2008)

"This is the story of our greatest adventure."
- Gary Sinise (narrator)

Review By: Dan Heaton  
Published: January 09, 2009

Stars: Gary Sinise, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, John Young, Jim McDivitt, Bill Anders, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, Gene Cernan, Fred Haise, Charlie Duke
Other Stars: Jay Barbree, Bruce McCandless, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Glynn Lunney, Susan Borman, Al Worden, Barbara Morgan, George H.W. Bush, Ken Bowersox, Hoot Gibson, Story Musgrave
Director: Various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 04h:54m:22s
Release Date: September 30, 2008
UPC: 014381448221
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B+A- B+

DVD Review

There have been countless documentaries produced about NASA over the years, with a majority covering the Apollo program. This is not untapped territory for a new television series. However, most entries focus on a specific era and don't cover multiple decades of NASA's past. When We Left Earth begins with the Mercury program of the early '60s and takes us all the way to the present day. The six episodes chronicle the space program's key events, including the first flight, Apollo 11 moon landing and Challenger disaster. Narrated by Gary Sinise, this informative series offers personal recollections from both astronauts and crew members about their experiences. The depictions sometimes veer into overly positive territory, but they never shift into unrealistic praise. NASA's rough moments, including the Hubble telescope failures and the Columbia tragedy, do receive their share of scrutiny. The result is an intriguing, often stunning look at our continued accomplishments as space voyagers.

The highlight of this new series is the abundance of newly released footage from NASA’s vaults. Instead of just seeing the typical shots of Armstrong’s walk and other key events, we observe amazing moments from lesser-known events. This footage has been improved considerably to give a better perspective of the astronaut’s experience. A surprise for me was the newer shuttle footage, particularly during the mission to fix the Hubble Telescope. The up-close perspective reveals just how precarious the situation was and brings more weight to the mission’s success. It's also impressive to see the large group of astronauts who contribute to this feature. The surprise appearance of Neil Armstrong is at first a welcome sight, but his comments are mostly obvious. I wanted to yell out "Neil, please stop reading the cue cards!" to help him out. On a positive note, behind-the-scenes figures like Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft convey plenty of notable information. The astronaut contributions are mostly worthwhile, with very good material coming from Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, Al Bean, John Young, Gene Cernan and Story Musgrave. George H.W. Bush and John Glenn also make short appearances. The six episodes are described in detail below:

Part One: Ordinary Supermen
The opening segment begins with the Mercury program and the selection of the first seven astronauts. Their intense training is shown in some compelling early footage. Alan Shepard was chosen for the first flight, and Gus Grissom followed with his own suborbital journey. A major step forward occurs with John Glenn's orbital flight, and Scott Carpenter went next. However, Carpenter struggled with his focus and nearly lost all his fuel. His troubles are presented clearly and aren't passed over to save face. I have to comment about this series' constant use of rousing music in the background, which feels overdone. The score isn't the problem on its own, but it's just used too much. Choosing the right moments would have made the music a stronger part of the story.

Part Two: Friends and Rivals
The success of the Mercury program leads to the two-man missions of the Gemini program, which were more ambitious. The "new nine" astronaut group includes such well-known figures as Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Pete Conrad. The first major event is Ed White becoming the first American man to walk in space. The footage is amazing and provides a remarkable look at this impressive feat. The other key action is the ability to rendezvous two spacecraft. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 launched separately and met in space—proving they can do it. This episode moves quickly through the missions and gives a solid overview of this time period.

Part Three: Landing the Eagle
The Apollo program begins with tragedy, as a fire during a routine test kills Grissom, White and rookie Roger Chafee. This series could spend an hour on just this momentum but the action quickly moves on to Apollo 8. Lovell, Borman and Bill Anders take a dangerous flight around the moon and are the first to go there. After some brief descriptions of the Apollo 9 and 10 missions, it's time for the big show. The coverage of Apollo 11 is impressive and shows all of the essential steps of this journey. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin comment on their achievement, though we hear nothing from Mike Collins. Even now, you can see how crew members like Kranz still are moved by this groundbreaking experience.

Part Four: The Explorers
It's unfortunate that Apollo 12 receives just a brief mention to start this episode. I guess it's hard to compete with the very familiar Apollo 13 crisis. The coverage of this mission is memorable and does a good job revealing the astronaut's dire situation. We get a quick view of Shepard hitting a golf ball on the moon during Apollo 14 then jump quickly to Apollo 16. Whoa! What happened to Apollo 15? Dave Scott, Al Worden and James Irwin made tremendous geological discoveries and tested the lunar rover for the first time. But this series completely skips that mission and implies that John Young and Charlie Duke were the first to drive the rover. This is not true. The coverage of the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, is an improvement, but the overall quality fallls short. Thankfully, the final segments on Skylab are top-notch and reveal the wonders of that space station.

Part Five: The Shuttle
I wasn't excited about this segment, as my interest lies mostly with the early space program. However, I'm surprised to report that this episode is one of the best entries within this collection. It begins with the first shuttle mission, commanded by long-time astronaut John Young. We observe notable details about this trip from start to finish. Much of this part focuses on the Challenger disaster, which occurred on my 10th birthday—January 28, 1986. In similar fashion to the Apollo 1 fire, this tragedy knocked NASA out of their complacency and stunned the nation. George H.W. Bush even gives a brief interview to discuss the effect of this moment. This episode concludes with a cliffhanger involving the errors in the Hubble telescope. If this massive device cannot be fixed, NASA may be history.

Part Six: A Home in Space
The final segment picks up with the daring mission to repair the Hubble Telescope in December 1993. Story Musgrave leads the experienced crew, who must undertake many lengthy spacewalks to succeed. This is fascinating material and ranks among the best sequences of this entire series. Next up is the International Space Station, which will allow astronauts to spend long periods orbiting the Earth. There is some great footage inside the station to reveal its achievements. Sadly, it takes another disaster to reveal inadequate safety within the shuttle program. The 2003 Columbia tragedy occurs during the landing, which is even more troubling. The interviews with the spouses of several dead astronauts show the emotional impact of the crash. Despite another deadly accident, NASA continues to explore space and will hopefully receive more ambitious goals in the future.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: When We Left Earth includes footage of widely different qualities, but most shots are impressive. It's surprising to witness how sharp the early videos are, particularly Ed White's spacewalk. There is some minor grain on much of the older material, but it rarely distracts from the presentation. The present-day interview segments are clear and contain few defects.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This release is constantly supported by rousing music, which can grow irritating pretty quickly. It's hard to complain about the transfer, however, as it moves well throughout the sound field. The rear speakers are used effectively for the music and sound effects and never grow too strong. It's not a booming transfer but does the job throughout the episodes.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 42 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
5 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Interviews from NASA's Archives
  2. Mission Archives
Extras Review: This collection includes a large group of extras that contain hours of additional footage to please NASA fanatics. Each main disc includes highlights from a documentary covering a specific mission within each era. The best item in this group is an excerpt from Four Days of Gemini 4, which shows even more amazing video from Ed White's spacewalk. The other pieces come from Apollo 13: Houston, We've Got a Problem and Skylab: The First 40 Days. Each segment lasts between six and nine minutes. The second section include interviews from NASA's archives with key people from each program. For example, the first disc includes discussions with astronaut Mike Collins and spacesuit engineer/designer Joe Kosmo. One of the best conversations shows Al Bean describing his paintings, which cover his personal experiences. The final area provides grainy clips from a variety of missions. These are usually very short and are supported by goofy music.

The bonus disc offers three hours of original NASA documentaries that delve into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. These films have lots of old footage, but they will be painful to anyone who's not a space junkie. I consider myself an avid fan, but I struggled to get through these one-sided pieces. Employing a straight-arrow narrator that is typical of the time period, they move extremely slowly. The cheesy music is just awful and makes it hard to focus on the information. The Apollo 8 and 11 features do improve over the Mercury pictures, but they remain a rough experience. The achievements are riveting, but these films suck the energy from the big moments. And where is material on the shuttle? It's hard to complain about the amount of extras, but this disc was still a big disappointment.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is not the definitive chronicle of our space program's history, but it gives a strong overview. Both enthusiasts and novices should find something to enjoy within this six-part series. NASA's future may have serious questions to face, but we cannot deny the successes of the past 50 years.


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