The Large Hadron Collider may be the most expensive science experiment ever — and still not one immune to equipment malfunctions. But for the average guy on the street who was more than a little relieved when he bid farewell to science after high school, the Collider is nothing more than a news oddity at best and the agent of the apocalypse at worst.
Contrast this with space travel that always captures public imagination. Perhaps there is something romantic and enterprising about — as an interviewee puts it in Discovery’s When We Left Earth documentary series — taking a man, sticking him on top of a ballistic missile and launching it.
So then it is a challenge for a documentary film-maker to depict the story of space travel in a new and exciting way. School textbooks, big budget Hollywood spectacles, and a number of high-profile media stories — even the tragic ones — will have satiated the most ardent space fan.
Which is why, just a few minutes into the first episode of the new six-part When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions series from Discovery Channel, you sit up and take notice. This stuff is good. And you’ve never seen most of it before.
The series, through six 1-hour episodes, encapsulates 50 years of Nasa explorations, from the first manned Mercury flight with Alan Shepard in 1961 to the Columbia disaster in 2003. But rather than stitching together oft-seen photos and videos with graphic illustrations and clips of buildings and landscapes with a little orchestral music, as is the case with many films, When We Left Earth offers a much deeper insight into the events of decades past.
Episodes are almost entirely crafted out of salvaged video and audio footage punctuated by interviews with astronauts, ground crew and journalists.
The format manages to convey much of the tension and fear of the teams involved, especially in the early days. When the race to launch a man into space is won by the Russians and Yuri Gagarin, the disappointment within the Mercury team is unmistakable. Interviewees remember President Kennedy’s bold challenge to Nasa to place a man on the moon with the same look of amazement they probably had 40 years ago.
Watch out for rare appearances by Neil Armstrong and narration by Gary Sinise, who played an astronaut in the 1995 movie Apollo 13.
When We Left Earth is essential viewing for space buffs and a worthy watch for the less space-inclined.
Houston... we have a winner.
The six-part series will air on the Discovery Channel every Monday at 9pm starting 6 October.