More than fifty years ago, stabilized nations around the world emerged from the hopelessness of the Great Depression and turned their gaze to the stars. For the first time in human history, mankind not only had the desire to reach the heavens, but the means to do so. In 1946, the United States sent fruit flies into space using German rockets. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully placed the first artificial satellite in orbit around the Earth. In 1958, the Americans launched a communications satellite that broadcast a message from President Eisenhower. What followed was a quick succession of immeasurable advances and countless achievements -- Yuri Gagarin ventured into space, John Glenn orbited the Earth, and the Apollo program put a man on the moon. Space travel was no longer the stuff of science fiction… it had become a twentieth century epic that captured the imagination of people around the world.
It’s a tale that still has the power to inspire. ‘When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions’ is a compelling six-episode Discovery Channel series that documents the United States’ involvement in the last five decades of space exploration. Combining interviews with the men and women who made it all possible, hours of restored archive mission footage, and the narration of actor Gary Sinise, ‘When We Left Earth’ relies on a slew of NASA achievements (from the earliest Mercury flights to the construction of the International Space Station) to paint a fascinating portrait of our country’s pursuit of the stars. Granted, I wish the series had more time to elaborate on the things other countries were doing as well, but I can’t even imagine how many episodes it would take to detail a complete history of space travel.
The first episode, ”Ordinary Superman,” covers the Mercury program, John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight, and all the drama and danger of the Space Race. “Friends and Rivals” introduces us to Project Gemini and the accomplishments of the first astronauts. “Landing the Eagle” delves into the Apollo program and the United States’ efforts to put a man on the moon. “The Explorers” follows the evolution of NASA and the subsequent Apollo missions that enthralled the entire nation. “The Shuttle” digs into the creation, missions, and usefulness of the modern Space Shuttle, as well as the launch of the Hubble Telescope. Finally, “A Home in Space” looks at the potential of humans living in space, the use of space stations, and the future of NASA.
What makes ‘When We Left Earth’ so special? First and foremost, the series focuses on the human stories buried within the missions, rather than simply pointing to NASA’s various scientific and technological milestones. It helps that each episode makes viewers feel as if they’re a part of history, rather than sideline observers. More importantly, the series manages to elicit genuine emotions and reactions. You’ll feel tense watching the struggles of the engineers, flight control officials, and astronauts, the challenges NASA faced over the years, and the amazing determination that drove everyone forward. You’ll feel the horror of tragic disasters like the Challenger launch and the Columbia re-entry. You’ll even experience the emotions of the Apollo missions, the joy of hundreds of historical milestones, and the overwhelming accomplishment of the lunar landings. There are plenty of topics I wish the series had spent more time investigating, but it would probably take forty-two episodes to cover everything.
’When We Left Earth’ is an excellent series that really captures the pride, joy, and heartache that has littered man’s struggles to reach space. It’s not only a thorough glimpse into our nation’s past, it’s an engaging introduction to dozens of people who drastically changed the course of human history. I can’t recommend the series itself enough.
’When We Left Earth’ features an unexpectedly solid 1080i/AVC-encoded transfer that looks quite good considering the fact that the series is comprised of various sources and packed to the brim with archive footage. The bulk of the series’ modern-day interviews boast strong colors, natural skintones, and sharp details, and recent launch and mission coverage looks impressive to say the least. The quality of the remastered archive footage rises and falls with the inherent limitations of the original material (stock damage, contrast inconsistencies, and reduced clarity are regular issues), but it’s clear that a lot of care went into every clip and highlight. Each passing episode continually surpassed my expectations and, for the most part, I was able to immerse myself into the series without any major visual distractions.
While I did catch some artifacting and errant source noise that could be attributed to the transfer -- as well as some crush and macroblocking in the dark expanses of space -- the video didn’t suffer from any debilitating technical issues. As it stands, ‘When We Left Earth’ may not pack the eye candy of other recent Blu-ray documentaries (particularly those from BBC Video), but I doubt the series could look much better than it does here.
’When We Left Earth’ also features a fairly aggressive, bass-heavy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that does a fine job with the varied source materials tossed its way. Gary Sinise’s narration is crisp and clear, recent interviews sound great, and prioritization is spot on, particularly for a television documentary series. I was also pleased to find the oldest footage had received a thorough audio restoration as well. Most of the shuttle launches sound fantastic, the mission footage boasts surprisingly detailed soundscapes, and the track delivers a consistent sonic experience from episode to episode. Of course, the quality of certain segments is entirely dependent on the age of the archive footage. Hissing, pops, and unintelligible speech are distracting from time to time, but most documentary fans are familiar with and forgiving of such issues.
Compliments aside, I can’t help but wonder if lossless audio would help make the series even more involving. While LFE support and resonance are decent, extension and clarity can be a bit choppy and muddy at times. Likewise, while the rear speakers produce a convincing soundfield when called upon, their general usage is spotty and underwhelming. All in all, ‘When We Left Earth’ isn’t the best sounding television or documentary series on the market, but it still delivers a solid experience.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘When We Left Earth’ includes all of the special features that appear on the standard DVD. The content is presented in standard definition, but it’s so expansive that NASA nuts will have a field day (several probably) digging through it all.
Overflowing with remastered archive footage, mission clips, and stirring interviews, the Blu-ray edition of ’When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions’ is a fascinating release that covers an enormous amount of history. It features all six episodes of the original Discovery Channel series, impressive video, decent audio, and more than four hours of supplemental material. Add to that an extremely affordable pricepoint and you have a release that justifies every dollar of a high-def purchase.