Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing next week, The Discovery Channel and Image Entertainment have released the documentary mini-series Moon Machines, originally broadcast on the Discovery offshoot The Science Channel last summer. This six-part series details the monumental engineering challenges faced by the Apollo program as those involved moved toward the ultimate goal of landing on the moon. Each episode focuses on a specific topic, such as the multistage Saturn V rockets or the lunar rover, recounting the development of this incredible machinery through interviews of the engineers involved in their design and construction, along with contemporaneous film footage.
The self-explanatory episodes
Moon Machines does just
about everything right. Each Apollo component is covered in-depth,
with well-written narration and interview footage delving into aspects
of design, construction, trouble-shooting, tests, and launch of each
The scale of the engineering
work accomplished throughout the Space Race in the 1960s, and the speed
with which remarkable innovations were achieved, is almost beyond comprehension.
According to the narration, 400,000 engineers and technical staff were involved in the Apollo
program. The level of coordination between government agencies,
private contractors, scientific research laboratories, and other elements
of the public and private sectors, is baffling and seems utterly impracticable
to a contemporary viewer. At a time when suspicion of government
"activism" of any sort is quibbled over ad nauseam, it seems
utterly unreal for a project of this scope to have been accomplished
in less than a decade. (In my own backyard, it's taking longer
than that to rebuild the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay
More mind-boggling than the
"how" here is the "what." The rockets, modules, and computer
systems that were developed for the specific purpose of going to the
moon have endured with a legacy of numerous far-flung applications that
remain in our 21st century daily lives. A key example
is the integrated circuit, which made great leaps forward in the course
of being refined for usage in the navigational computer inside the Apollo
The level of detail here is
impressive. We see who was involved and get a sense of the working
environments at places like North American Aviation and the MIT Instrumentation
Laboratory. Still, the personalities involved are not as important
as the science, and are appropriately downplayed. The stories
behind the machines are thankfully presented without the semi-fictional
flare that many "documentaries" offer up these days in the form
of half-hearted recreations featuring costumed actors muttering inaudible
dialogue - or worse, made-up dialogue. No, Moon Machines
keeps it real by sticking to new interview footage with key players
on the engineering teams, interspersed with archival footage of those
same teams working on the projects discussed. It's amazing how
thoroughly the space program was documented at the time; virtually everything
mentioned by the interviewees is on film, from mundane shots of daily
life in the labs and launch sites, to the spectacularly catastrophic
rocket tests highlighted in The Right Stuff.
The creative team behind the series was also responsible for the well-received In the Shadow of the Moon (2006). The episodes are thoughtfully
laid out, and complicated scientific and engineering concepts (such
as the challenge of reducing the weight of the Saturn V rocket's second
stage) are explicated with simple, clear animated diagrams to compliment
the words of the engineers themselves. The series is exceptionally
well-edited, and the score by Philip Sheppard is thoughtful and unusually
engaging for this type of program.
A very nice enhanced 1.78:1
transfer is provided. The image shines, unfettered by artifacts.
The interview footage is particularly clean. The archival film
footage is presented in its original square aspect ratio, windowboxed
within the anamorphic transfer. This footage has clearly been
carefully preserved, with bold, lifelike color. It's easy to
forget that this stuff is 40-plus years old.
A solid Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
mix is provided. The balance is strong, with interviewee dialogue
and narration remaining in the forefront. When voices are absent
from the soundtrack, the often excellent musical score is gently highlighted.
The story of the Space Race of the 1960s and the Apollo missions in particular, have been covered in countless books, feature films, and documentaries. Moon Machines, however, sheds important light on this fascinating topic by focusing on the achievements of the engineering groups that constructed the physical components which made space exploration possible in the first place. Highly Recommended.