I can vividly recall being ten years-old and watching the first, historic mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia on television. The date was April 12, 1981, and it was the first live launch of a spacecraft I'd ever witnessed. My reaction of awe and wonder was, I'm sure, similar to those who watched the original moon landing back in 1969. There is something universally out-of-body about the very concept of space travel that's incomparable to anything else. The sheer act of mere mortals breaking the barriers of our earthy world to explore the cosmos is, arguably, the closest we can get to God without going to heaven itself.
In the twenty-five-odd years since that original Columbia launch, we've seen many subsequent shuttle flights, enough so that it is easy to become blase about their very existence. It only seems to be when tragedy strikes -- as it did with the Challenger in 1986 and then Columbia in 2003 -- that we're all suddenly reminded that NASA is even still around.
The HDNet World Report special 'Shuttle Discovery's Historic Mission' does not document any of the earlier space shuttle tragedies. It does, however, document what was perhaps the most important launch in the history of the shuttle program. Following the destruction of Columbia, all planned shuttle launches were put on hold, with the hiatus eventually lasting 29 months. Many inside and outside the government questioned continuing funding of the program, and up until Discovery finally launched in 2005, there were serious doubts that the world would ever see another space shuttle in the skies again.
'Historic Mission' offers a twofold view of Discovery's expedition. Of course there is the quasi-standard launch footage we've all seen before on nightly news broadcasts (I kept half-expecting the CNN logo to appear on the bottom right of the screen), but much more interestingly, NASA granted rare extensive access to preparations for the launch by the ground crew, and additional footage shot in the Discovery itself by its astronauts.
It is here where 'Historic Mission' truly excels, with images that are often breathtaking. The astronauts on board took some amazing footage, with even what would appear to the most routine tasks (for them) will seem awe-inspiring to us mere earthlings. Even the pre-launch material is fascinating, from covering the huge undertaking required to launch a shuttle, to charming footage of the shuttle strapped to the back of a 747 for a cross country flight. Then there are the tense repairs that happened miles up in our atmosphere, after the Discovery ran into some much-publicized trouble that threatened once again to end in disaster. Though not at all exploitative, it is here that 'Historic Mission' is as involving as any fictional Hollywood blockbuster.
Unfortunately, 'Historic Mission' can also be a bit dry, veering into a few too many technical details for my taste, focusing a bit too much on the ground crew, instead of the more fun space stuff. Still, there are more than enough startling images and insights here to make this 'Historic Mission' well worth watching for casual viewers and diehard space buffs alike.
'Shuttle Discovery's Historic Mission' was the first Blu-ray release from the HDNet World Report series, released back in September of 2006. For this maiden Blu-ray voyage, the distributor decided to go with 1080i/MPEG-2 video, which is presented here in the content's original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Unfortunately 'Shuttle Discovery's Historic Mission' is something of a disappointment from a picture quality perspective. The 50-minute program (pressed on a BD-25 single-layer disc with no supplementary material) is culled from a variety of sources, with quality that can range from fantastic to just mediocre.
The actual launch preparation footage looks great, boasting an excellent source with wonderful detail and detail, and that kind of you-are-there, three-dimensional clarity typical of the best shot-on-HD video material. Colors are also robust and vivid, especially the wonderful blues and oranges, and pure whites.
Too bad this makes up only about ten percent or so of the program's total runtime. The rest of 'Historic Mission' is comprised of various behind-the-scenes and archival segments that look to be from decidedly non-HD origins. Quality here lacks sharpness and detail, with flat colors and blacks that tend to appear washed out. I also noticed some noise, which is heavy enough in many shots to be distracting.
To be fair, this disc delivers a few breathtaking moments, but if you're looking for a true demo disc this isn't it. For the most part, 'Historic Mission' just looks like typical over-the-air HD of the variety you see from your local network affiliate during off-hours.
The video may be spotty, but it far exceeds the merely serviceable audio. HDNet has provided two audio options on this disc -- standard Dolby Digital and DTS, both 2.0 stereo only.
The narration and score on most of these types of made-for-TV programs tend to be pretty cheesy, and 'Historic Mission' doesn't break the mold. There is nothing impressive about the way the on-location audio is presented, nor the way it is balanced with the rest of the studio-constructed audio portions. Many sequences sound like a mono source simply spread out in stereo, with no clear distinction between sonic elements. Dynamics are perfectly fine, if far from remarkable.
On the bright side, low bass and higher ranges are solid enough, and both the Dolby Digital and DTS mixes are free of any major defects such as hiss or dropouts.
There are no program-specific supplemental features included here, aside from some promos of other HDNet programs.
'HDNet World Report: Shuttle Discovery's Historic Mission' is an often beautiful, sometimes fascinating document of a truly historic moment in the history of NASA.
Unfortunately there's only so much this Blu-ray release can do with limited source material. The video quality is mostly mediocre, and similarly, while it's typical of mixes for programs of this sort, the audio is also underwhelming. Finally, a total lack of supplements drags the overall rating down that much more.
Judged on the same scale as a 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' this Blu-ray disc certainly fails to impress. But given this project's more humble origins, it's arguably still worth a rent if the subject matter interests you -- just don't expect much more than you would from a HD broadcast of a program of this sort.