While plenty of films have used real space programmes and agencies as the framework for fictional stories, not so many have adapted the actual historical stories involved: The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are the major ones that exist. Fortunately, there is an absolutely fantastic docudrama miniseries which portrays the story of NASA’s quest to put a man on the Moon, from 1961 to 1972: From the Earth to the Moon.
Screened by HBO in 1998, From the Earth to the Moon is largely based on Andrew Chaikin’s history of the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon. Tom Hanks, who played astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, was the executive producer: he also gives the introduction for most of the episodes, and has a small acting role in the final one. In fact, many actors from Apollo 13 turn up in this series, though usually in different roles: for example, David Andrews and Ben Marley play Pete Conrad and John Young in the film, but Frank Borman and Roger Chaffee in the series. It would have been cool to see Hanks reprise the role of Jim Lovell – who appears in several episodes, portrayed by Tim Daly – but it was not to be.
Aside from its historical and technical accuracy, its special effects (particularly with regards to the moonwalks, which look perfect), and how well it captures the unique character traits of the astronauts and everyone else involved, the series is extremely well constructed in terms of story. While most episodes place one Apollo flight in focus, there are a number of different styles and framing devices used. And while each episode is its own story, and their timelines often overlap, there’s very little recycling of material between them (aside from using some special effects shots of craft in space multiple times). Just about every mission is portrayed in just the right way to make it most interesting for a TV medium: even with the weaker episodes, you can appreciate why the decision to tell the story that way was made.
Something should also be said for the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the only official music release from the series mostly consists of songs that were used, only including the opening and closing themes composed by Michael Kamen as examples of the original music. This is a big disappointment, considering how good the themes from each episode are, setting the tone perfectly each time: particular favourites of mine include the theme from ‘Spider’, the music accompanying the Freedom 7 flight in ‘Can We Do This’ and pretty much everything in the second half of ‘Mare Tranquilitatis’.
1. Can We Do This?
The first episode gets the ball rolling, setting up the United States’ space rivalry with the Soviet Union, as the latter succeeds in putting the first man into space in April 1961. Following a portrayal of the first American space flight by Alan Shepard which is rather more detailed and exciting than the same event in The Right Stuff, President Kennedy lays down the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the decade. The episode continues to set the stage, with the introduction of astronauts who will be familiar faces in episodes to come, and a good look at the achievements of Project Gemini, which deserves more attention than it usually gets. By the final scene, where the astronauts are gathered together to be told, “The first man to walk on the Moon walked into this room today”, the path onward seems clear.
2. Apollo 1
Unfortunately, this episode opens with a tragic and major obstacle, as the Apollo 1 spacecraft catches fire during a test on the launchpad, killing the three astronauts inside. With good continuity from what we’ve already seen, the rest of the episode focusses on overcoming this particular conflict, addressing the issues of improper engineering and management which led to the fire, and government pressure which throws Project Apollo itself into doubt.
3. We Have Cleared The Tower
Apollo 7 – the first Earth-orbit test of the Apollo command and service module – may have been a key flight, but it’s not the most interesting one from a television point of view. So instead, this episode – told from the point of view of a team of documentary filmmakers – deals with the build-up, introducing the audience to the huge team of people behind each Apollo flight, and the sequence of events leading up to a launch. The episode ends with Apollo 7 heading into space, the triumphant theme telling us that the final push to the Moon has finally begun.
Apollo 8, the first manned spaceflight to actually travel to the Moon, is placed within a backdrop of troubling historical events (portrayed in the form of real stock footage) that took place within the year 1968: the continuing war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and worldwide violence. It’s certainly an appropriate approach, given that Apollo 8 takes place at the end of the year, marking a bright spot after all the troubles. To emphasise the point, scenes on Earth (aside from the stock footage) are in black and white, while scenes in space are in colour. The scene where the Apollo 8 astronauts see the Earth rising above the lunar surface for the first time is a natural highlight of the episode.
The lunar module was certainly unique enough to merit its own episode: it was the first spacecraft designed to operate entirely in space, and it even looks somewhat alive, with its insectoid legs and a ‘face’ of sorts. This episode tells the whole story, from the original idea to use the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous method, to the design and construction of the Lunar Excursion Module by Grumman Corporation and the challenges that ensue, to its successful test flight. While there is quite a bit of drama as the project falls behind schedule, there are also more fun moments – such as the montage of perfecting the LEM’s design, using a model that gets modified bit by bit – and the Grumman engineering team are very likeable. But besides the human characters, the episode does a surprisingly good job of getting you invested in a machine: LEM-3, the first lunar module built to be test flown by astronauts. Given the callsign ‘Spider’, LEM-3 makes a triumphant flight onboard Apollo 9. Apollo 10 – the LEM’s test flight in lunar orbit – is only covered very briefly, but after all the previous focus on Apollo 9, more extensive coverage probably wouldn’t seem very new.
6. Mare Tranquilitatis
We come at last to Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, and a return to more basic storytelling. The first half deals with the setup, introducing the three astronauts – the aloof Neil Armstrong, the serious Buzz Aldrin, and the more laidback Mike Collins – and showing various relevant episodes in their preparations. Then the second half deals with the landing itself, and all the tension that comes with various alarms and overshooting the planned landing site. The final scene, with Armstrong taking his “one small step”, is one of the best in the whole series, with the music in particular making it a very emotional moment.
7. That’s All There Is
This is easily the most comedic and light-hearted episode, being based around the crew of Apollo 12: Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Al Bean are not just crewmates, but genuinely close friends, who love to bring some humour into what they are doing. With a lot of funny moments, plus some heartwarming examples of the bonds between the three men, it’s relatively simplistic but still very good – one of my favourites.
8. We Interrupt This Program
For the Apollo 13 episode, the producers decided against re-hashing the film, and instead telling a different story with the Apollo 13 crisis as its backdrop. We focus on Emmett Seaborn (played by Lane Smith, aka Perry White from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), a fictional news reporter who has already appeared in half of the previous episodes, reporting on missions and interviewing astronauts. Reporting on the unfolding events of Apollo 13, Seaborn applies his usual focus on technical details and telling it like it is, only to find himself undermined by a younger reporter who proposes more human interest stories focussing on the astronauts’ families. It’s not a bad story, and I understand why this approach was used, but this is definitely the weakest episode overall.
9. For Miles and Miles
Here, we have another ‘central character’ episode approach, with Alan Shepard, whom we haven’t seen since the first episode. The reason for that, it turns out, is that Shepard is grounded due to coming down with an inner ear disorder. After following Shepard through his time as Head of the Astronaut Office, and his fight to get back on flight status – portraying Shepard as a bit of a grump, but still likeable – we finally get to him succeeding and becoming the commander of Apollo 14. As with Apollo 11, it’s another tense landing sequence due to technical issues, but it’s good to see Shepard reach the end of his journey and stand on the Moon.
10. Galileo Was Right
Just as ‘Spider’ tries to get you invested in a machine, so ‘Galileo Was Right’ tries to get you invested in a science which may not interest many of us but is pretty essential if you’re going to the Moon: geology. (So I guess it’s not inappropriate that the theme from ‘Spider’ gets re-used a couple of times here.) Apollo 15 marks the beginning of the J-Missions which involve more detailed scientific study of the Moon: the astronauts’ enthusiasm for and understanding of geology is limited, but the work of some engaging and slightly eccentric geology teachers make the whole thing much more interesting (hopefully for the audience as well as the astronauts). The Apollo 15 moonwalks are shown in detail, culminating in the triumphant picking up of a small rock, and the inspiring drop of a hammer and feather. It makes sense in the episode, honest.
11. The Original Wives Club
Apollo 16 is covered in this episode, but it’s not the focus: again, that would just seem like a rehash of the previous (and subsequent) episode, given that it was a similar type of mission. Instead, the opportunity is taken to tell the story of the Apollo astronauts’ wives. The overall atmosphere of this story gradually changes, starting with the ladies being well unified and cheerfully spending time with each other – then things get more serious, as some are widowed, and others are consumed by the stress of having a largely absent husband in a dangerous profession while trying to maintain a perfect image for the media. By the time we get to the episode’s end, the tone is quite depressing. As with the subsequent episode, it portrays the conclusion of the era we’ve been watching, but with far more dejection and disappointment than hope and triumph. The final scene describing the fates of the nine wives we’ve been focussing on doesn’t help: two were widowed, and five divorced.
12. Le Voyage Dans La Lune
The final episode is divided between coverage of Apollo 17, the final lunar landing – and, curiously enough, a depiction of the making of Georges Melies’ 1902 silent film Le Voyage Dans La Lune. I’m not quite sure what the point of the latter is exactly (other than the words in the introduction: “Imagining that it could be done was the very first step taken in the journey from the Earth to the Moon”), but it’s integrated well and is fun to watch. The ending, as humans leave the Moon for the last time, is understandably sad, but accompanied with pride that it was done at all, and hope for what the future may bring.
One thing I would have liked from this episode would be some closure for the character of Deke Slayton (Nick Searcy). Along with Emmett Seaborn, Slayton is one of the characters who appears most frequently through the series: originally one of the Mercury Seven astronauts, he is grounded due to a heart condition and instead becomes Director of Flight Operations, handling the astronauts’ assignments. His disappointment about not getting to fly in space is certainly addressed, particularly in ‘Apollo 1’ – but people watching the series might not know that Slayton actually did get into space eventually, on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. A little flash-forward to portray this would have been nice.
Ranking the episodes is pretty hard, but I’d go with:
02. That’s All There Is
03. Can We Do This?
04. Galileo Was Right
06. Mare Tranquilitatis
07. Le Voyage Dans La Lune
08. The Original Wives Club
09. Apollo 1
10. For Miles and Miles
11. We Have Cleared The Tower
12. We Interrupt This Program
Overall, From The Earth to the Moon is a diverse, well-constructed miniseries, and if you have any interest at all in spaceflight and haven’t checked it out yet, do so as soon as possible.