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Go / No Go :
"Apollo 17: End of the Beginning" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   Spacecraft Films
Release:   November 2004
Length:   More than 27 hours on 6 discs
MSRP:   $84.99
Extras:   CGI flyover of landing site; onboard audio recorded during launch; training footage

By the time Apollo 17: End of the Beginning concludes with the welcoming ceremony on the deck of the USS Ticonderoga, you almost get the sense that you've been on the mission yourself.

After all, the 27-hour runtime is approximately five hours longer than the total amount of time Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt spent on the surface during their three EVAs. You've seen them train for those moonwalks and been with them on geology field trips. You have watched Cernan, Schmitt and command module pilot Ron Evans take part in the photo shoot for their familiar crew portrait.

They lift off from Florida, land at Taurus-Littrow, explore, launch the LM Challenger from the surface, dock in lunar orbit and you're there. Evans gets his moment in the sun, so to speak, and does a trans-Earth EVA. You're happy for him. You watch as fire streaks past a window during re-entry, followed by those beautiful parachutes as they blossom above the CM America to bring you safely down into the Pacific Ocean.

One of the critiques often expressed about Spacecraft Films' products has been that they tend to contain too many static, boring shots, with little or no commentary. Such critics miss the point, and miss it very badly. These are historical documents that seek to give as complete a record as possible of each mission.

What Spacecraft Films provides isn't a Cliff Notes version of space history. Prefer a condensed version of what's happening in today's world? Read USA Today. Want a sound bite? Flip to CNN. Need a documentary? Call Ken Burns. You watch what Spacecraft Films has put together to form an opinion about history for yourself.

Certainly, the 27 hours of Apollo 17 is a lot to digest in a single - or for that matter, multiple sittings, but most DVD players have fast forward buttons, right? And each of the six discs have multiple menus by which topics interesting to you can be selected. However, when you skip ahead, precious nuggets of history are missed.

A few observations while watching the 27 hours...
    Disc One
  • Who's the girl in the short, short mini-skirt watching the EVA training?

  • The working Rover mock-up has to have been the coolest go-kart ever.

  • Schmitt's pre-flight commentary that's played over video of geology training is fascinating, but sad as well. So many of the things Schmitt hoped to accomplish on future trips to the Moon were never realized.

    Disc Two
  • The computer-generated flyover of the Taurus-Littrow landing site and EVA routes was a tremendous addition. However, it would have been nice to put the flyover's overall view of the valley in the center spread of the menu booklet, just to provide a point of reference.

  • Quite possibly the most poignant moment of the mission, even more so than Cernan's last words on the surface, takes place just after Cernan and Schmitt plant the American flag. Emotion is clear in Cernan's voice as he calls it "one of the most proud moments of my life, I guarantee you." Ten minutes later, after more work and as he's back at the LM, the event is still on Cernan's mind. "I've gotta tell ya, Bob," Cernan tells Capcomm Bob Parker. "I haven't done everything there is to do in the Navy, but deploying that flag has gotta be the most proud thing I'll ever do in my life."

    Disc Three
  • During the closeout of EVA 1, Cernan is startled by something landing near the rover and LM. He wonders aloud if he and Schmitt have been witness to a lunar meteor strike, when in fact, the debris (visible at the top of the screen as it flies by) is from the bursting of a piece of styrofoam on the rover's antenna. As with the flag raising, the sentiment in Cernan's voice is evident. He's clearly surprised by what had just happened, certainly not panicked, just surprised.

  • Here's something I had never seen before: At Station 2 of EVA 2, Cernan brushes the rover's camera lens. As he does, he lifts his visor, leaving his face clearly visible. The picture is so clear, you can see his lips moving as he speaks. It's a picture vastly improved from the grainy, ghostly images of the historic Apollo 11 EVA.

  • Also at Station 2, EVA 2, it's hard to tell if Schmitt is grumpy or just matter-of-fact when he tells Cernan flatly that mission control can't appreciate the grade of slope they're trying to negotiate, so it'll be up to them to rely the information back to Earth. Throughout the three EVAs, it's evident geologist Schmitt wasn't about to waste any of his time on the lunar surface. His descriptions of what he sees are a near-constant barrage back to Earth and mission control. Don't get lost in the terminology. Remember that you're watching two explorers, a long, long way from home.

    Disc Four
  • Schmitt's not-so-graceful fall at Station 3, EVA 2 puts into perspective just how physical he and Cernan were about their work. They've knelt in the lunar soil, they've jumped, they've pushed, pulled and tugged to get things right. Parker calling Schmitt "Twinkletoes" and telling him that NASA has received a call from the Houston ballet are great examples of adding a bit of levity to the situation.

  • When Schmitt discovers orange soil at Shorty Crater (Station 4, EVA 2), the excitement in his and Cernan's voice is palpable. However, just how hurried they were becomes all too clear when Parker's first response to the discovery is, "Copy that, but I guess we'd better work fast."

    Disc Five
  • At Station 8, EVA 3, Schmitt "skis" downhill, making the sounds of skis against snow as he goes. My first thought? These were guys who, while working harder than they ever had, were having the times of their lives.

  • Finally, Cernan makes his well-known farewell speech before climbing up Challenger's ladder. Having already parked the rover a good distance from the LM, so as to get a good picture of its lift-off from the surface, Cernan is not visible as he speaks. However, his words come across as open and honest. Watch this segment, and it's hard not to feel some sort of emotion yourself. There's pride in the accomplishment of having made it there. There's sadness in not having went back. There's anger that the effort seems to have been "abandoned in place." If NASA had continued on the track of Apollo, what new frontiers would we be exploring today?

    Disc Six
  • During the in-flight press conference, a small American flag and Beta cloth crew patch in a vacuum-sealed bag has been placed between the astronauts. The collector in me immediately perked up. "Darn, those things would look mighty good framed and hanging on my wall," I thought, paying not the least bit of attention to the press conference.

  • The video during recovery seems to have been shot just yesterday. The helicopter comes in for a landing on the Ticonderoga, and it looks clear as a bell. However, the segment switches back and forth between video and murkier, older-looking film.
Go/No Go: Go. Apollo 17, the mission, was arguably the most successful of the Moon voyages, and Apollo 17, the DVD set, is the most complete record of a mission in the Spacecraft Films catalog.

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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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