Media Scene

TV series soars from space race to shuttle


9 p.m. today, Discovery Channel ***

Think of them as the first reality show stars. Their adventures transfixed the nation, then the planet.

They were the first generation of astronauts, and when they reached for the sky and left footprints on the moon, we watched in awe. From projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, their cue was the tense 3-2-1 countdown.

What followed was a thunderous, blazing marvel – men catapulted into an uncertain fate, into an unforgiving realm, riding the spear tip of 6,000 years of human technology.

Tonight, Discovery Channel launches a series looking at the pioneer days of spaceflight, great triumphs to deadly failures. Presented in high definition, the anthology includes films that have been buried for decades in NASA archives. It also brings back many of the original astronauts and others who recall the thrills of exploration.

For those who didn't live in the 1960s, it is hard to explain the impact of the space race. On one side was good-old Yankee know-how. On the other was the dark menace of the Soviet Union, which was first into space with Sputnik, first into space with a dog and first into space with a man.

In 1961, President Kennedy announced the nation would land a man on the moon by decade's end, a bombastic challenge to the sputtering space program.

We became a nation knit by television to every launch, and they were nail-biters. Names like Shepard, Glenn and Grissom – and even Ham the chimpanzee – were as well known as the Hollywood stars of the day. Little boys discarded their cowboy hats and six-shooters and pretended to be rocket men instead. Suddenly things were A-OK. “Gunsmoke” was on the way out; “Star Trek” was on the way in.

Reaching for the heavens changed the fundamental view the nation took of itself. For nearly 200 years America was defined by westward expansion. Now, the new frontier was above.

At the height of the Apollo program in the late 1960s, 400,000 Americans were somehow involved in the project. It attracted much of the nation's best brainpower. Many of the engineers were straight out of college. In the Apollo control room, the average age was 26.

In January 1967, while practicing for the first Apollo mission, a flash fire killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Though Apollo was redesigned, it was a powerful blow to the magical image of the program, one that always sailed on the edge of the map.

Few Americans knew how close the Apollo 11 mission, the first to reach the lunar surface in 1969, was to disaster.

Gene Krantz, the mission control chief for the mission, tells the tale in the Discovery episode about Apollo. As the astronauts made final preparations for landing, Krantz recalled, he called the mission specialists together in the control room.

“From the day of our birth, we were meant for this time and place,” he told them. “And today we will land a man on the moon … No person will leave or enter this room until we land, we crash or we abort. Those were the only three options.”

Problems started in the first minutes of the lander's descent. First, communications were lost with Houston. When they were re-established, the onboard computer overloaded (the average modern wristwatch has more computing power). Then the proposed landing area was full of boulders and pilot Buzz Aldrin had to look for a new place to land.

Less than a minute of fuel remained, then less than 30 seconds. Controllers began to prepare for an abort, which would have been the most complicated maneuver in aerospace history. With 17 seconds left, the lander touched down. Then came Neil Armstrong's famous message: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

It was yet another fantastic finish in a daring decade of exploration. It served as the foundation for all that would follow – robotic missions to the planets, the Hubble telescope that could see to the edges of space and time, the International Space Station. NASA turns 50 this year and in “When We Left Earth,” Discovery provides the birthday video – and remind us what a ride it has been.