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WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Gary Sinise
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, 1080i
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  258 Minutes
Release Date:  September 30, 2008

“This is Tranquility Bay…the Eagle has landed.”

Film ****

Michelle Obama notwithstanding, many of us know how it feels to be proud of our country, especially those of us who grew up during or immediately following America’s triumphs in outer space.  What began as a challenge to top the Soviet Union in a race for the stars became one of the United States’ most defining eras, as our brilliant scientists and engineers and our bravest men and women would truly face the final frontier and begin opening our minds and imaginations in ways never before thought possible.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is the Discovery Channel’s detailed and intimate look at the history of America in space.  Sorry to break it to anyone currently running for president who thinks of himself as a citizen of the world before being an American, but this program doesn’t chronicle Soviet or any other nation’s achievements…not to belittle what they accomplished, but they’re entitled to their own documentation of their own slice of history.  This is about us.

From the early attempts and multiple failures to getting a satellite into orbit under Eisenhower came the Kennedy years, when our president put forth the challenge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.  Impossible?  Seemingly…but ours was always a nation of turning the impossible into the inevitable.

With amazing amounts of amassed footage, including much from the NASA archives that hadn’t been seen before, the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration comes to life, alongside modern interviews with those who were there, putting life, limb and reputation on the line time and time again. 

From the early days of the Mercury astronauts when Americans first broke the surly bonds of earth, including Alan Shepard our first in space and John Glenn our first orbiter, to the Gemini years when multiple men were carried out of the atmosphere and learning to walk and work in space, every piece of progress was a step toward fulfilling Kennedy’s challenge, which would ultimately materialize in the Apollo program.  I was born the year Neil Armstrong first stepped off of the Eagle landing module and uttered the words that would forever mark a moment in history, and the whole world watched as homo sapiens took their first steps onto a world that was not their own.

It was a history filled with triumphs, but as the multi-part documentary narrated by Gary Sinise shows, tragedy as well.  Space flight was dangerous and unexplored territory.  It took a lot of trial and error.  It took and still takes men and women with incredible courage, skill and love of country to put their lives on the line.  I was not around when original astronaut Gus Grissom and his crew were killed in a fire on the launching pad. 

I was, however, around for the devastating Challenger explosion, and even home from school watching the day it happened.  It was the kind of tragic moment like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 when, if you were alive and conscious, you would never forget where you were and what you were doing that day.  Columbia would follow in the years to come, serving as a sober reminder of the dire danger of space travel, and what sacrifices are always required to take each bold new step forward.

But the history of the American space program is more than a collection of triumphs and tragedies.  All in all, it’s a remarkable chronicling of the spirit of our nation, and a reminder of what we were once able to accomplish in the face of adversity and challenge, and what kinds of achievements our future can still hold.  I was, am, and always will be proud to be an American, and grateful to the men and women who continue to risk everything to keep our nation moving forward with their new discoveries.

Video ***

Considering the program mixes newer and older footage, some of which goes back for decades, this Blu-ray offers a mostly pristine look at the history of our nation’s space program, or at least as pristine as possible.  Curious that for Blu-ray the transfer is presented in 1080i instead of 1080p, so it doesn’t take full advantage of the format’s technological capabilities.  Still, the colors and detail levels are good throughout, with, of course, some grain and aging debris present on older clips of film.  Seeing outer space in near true high definition is a definite treat.

Audio ***

The Dolby Digital audio is nicely presented…there are a few extra mixing effects here and there to give you the feel of the power of rockets lifting off for space.  That aside, the many interview clips are well presented against the sounds of space travel.

Features ***

The disc contains over four hours of bonus features including more NASA film footage, interviews, and clips from the missions.

Summary:

I remember watching this program on HDTV and telling my wife that I hoped it would be available on Blu-ray someday.  When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions beautifully records and preserves one of the most amazing journeys America has ever taken: namely, her first few adventures outside of the confines of earth.  It’s a tale of achievement and heartbreaks, and a reminder of all we once accomplished and can accomplish again.

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