If you're older than about 45 or so, you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing (most likely glued to a television) on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I know I was in the family car returning from a family vacation, speeding like a bat out of hell from Spokane to Seattle so that we could make it home in time to watch (which, thankfully, we did). I remember listening to the radio enraptured the entire way back home, as my elderly grandmother, evidently cut from the same cloth as Dan Aykroyd's character in Sneakers, insisted it was all a hoax and there was no way we had the technical prowess to poke our puny little exploratory noses into the vast infinite reaches of space. I have to wonder how my grandmother would react to the at times awe inspiring footage from the NASA archives included in When We Left the Earth, a sterling four disc Blu-ray set that, despite your knowing the ultimate outcomes of the missions, will leave you perched on the edge of your seat more than once.
When We Left the Earth chronicles the United States' complete space exploration history, from the early competitive days with the USSR, to President Kennedy's seemingly mad proclamation that we should land a man on the moon within a decade (after only a couple of short manned non-orbital trips into the outer atmosphere), through the triumphs and tragedies of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, culminating in today's space shuttle flights. What is continually beyond mind boggling throughout at least the first three episodes of this set is how completely primitive our technology really was back then. Seeing Mission Control with its gigantic "personal computers" and the luddite communication systems in use back then is almost like watching a bad 50s science fiction movie. Except this is science fact, and the fact is somehow we triumphed over these drawbacks to actually travel to our nearest satellite safely and then return.
There were of course hiccups along the way, and while When We Left the Earth doesn't really dwell on them, there's no denying momentarily sweaty palms when Gus Grissom's first splashdown ends in near tragedy when the capsule takes on water and begins sinking, followed in short order by Grissom himself. Of course that seems like a walk in the park compared to the tragic fate that befell Grissom and two of his compatriots at the dawn of the Apollo age, which gets a brief, if heart wrenching, treatment here, mostly as a "wake up call" that safety systems needed to be more redundant and thoroughly thought through.
This series is remarkable on a number of fronts, including its copious use of heretofore unseen NASA footage, some of it nicely restored and looking pretty darned good for something approaching half a century old. Everything from rocket POV shots as Titans escape Earth's gravitational pull to something akin to "home movies" taken on board various missions is included in this fascinating footage. This archival footage is intercut with contemporary interviews from virtually all of the surviving participants of the "space race," going back to the original Mercury 7, and then their Gemini and Apollo comrades. These men (and women--wives and female coworkers are also included, as well as the women astronauts who ultimately joined the initially all-male crew) simply emanate "the right stuff," a strange mixture of hubris and humility that is bracing and refreshing. Along the way, you're let in on some little-known facts, like Neil Armstrong being within 17 seconds of running out of gas as he landed the Eagle on that July 1969 day. I found myself more than once gripping the arms of my chair as a mission encountered unforeseen difficulties, even though my rational mind knew it must have come out OK since the astronauts survived and were giving interviews in 2008. But that's a testament to how viscerally these events are presented throughout this invaluable history lesson.
When We Left Earth features six episodes spread over three discs (with a fourth bonus disc of NASA material). "Ordinary Superman" deals with the original Mercury Seven, showing in some remarkable detail the intense testing they went through as they competed to become the first American shot into space. "Friends and Rivals" continues the friendly rivalry as Mercury gives way to Gemini and a new group of future astronauts is brought on board to augment the original team. "Landing the Eagle" documents the almost at times haphazardly fast leaps forward that ended up putting Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface. "The Explorers" starts in the victorious afterglow of the successful moon mission but quickly gets into the horrors of Apollo 13, following up with the rest of the Apollo missions and Skylab. "The Shuttle" depicts the United States' move away from lunar or other planetary missions to the shorter range shuttle, culminating in The Challenger tragedy. Final episode "A Home in Space" focuses on both the Hubble space telescope and the long in construction international space station, which hopefully will ultimately be the start of an exciting new earthwide chapter in space exploration.