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Go / No Go :
"Apollo 7: Shakedown Cruise" DVD
"Apollo 9: Spider Takes Flight" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   Spacecraft Films
Release:   2005
Length:   More than four hours on two discs
MSRP:   $34.99
Extras:   Pre- and post-flight commentary from the crew and management; multi-angle launch, training, suit up, pad and recovery footage

Studio:   Spacecraft Films
Release:   2004
Length:   More than five hours on two discs
MSRP:   $34.99
Extras:   Pre- and post-mission interview commentary; multi-angle launch, training, preparation and recovery footage

The first and third Apollo flights are unfortunately the least known of the lunar program missions. Had either flight failed, it's possible, if not likely, that Neil Armstrong would not have been the first person to walk on the Moon, let alone the United States reaching the lunar surface.

Spacecraft Films brings these flights back from obscurity in the recently released Apollo 7: Shakedown Cruise and last year's Apollo 9: Spider Takes Flight two disc sets.

Both releases paint a fairly complete picture of their subjects, but for Apollo 7, that doesn't fully happen until the latter half of Disc Two. The first disc is relatively standard fare for a Spacecraft Films release, with pre-flight commentary from Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham played over footage of altitude chamber preparations, countdown demonstrations and the like.

However, there is little mention of the Apollo 1 tragedy in any of the Apollo 7 first-disc archival audio tracks. The fire and subsequent loss of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee directly impacted Schirra and his crew. It caused their mission a delay of nearly two years as the Apollo command and service modules underwent a near- total redesign. Yet Schirra mentions the fire only briefly in only one pre-flight interview, and with no real substance.

Then, on the second disc, the black-and-white television transmissions paint a portrait of a relatively happy, jovial crew. They hold signs up to the camera proclaiming the viewer to now be in "the Lovely Apollo Room, High Atop Everything." Cunningham serves as a tour guide for the command module cabin, introducing his fellow crewmates as they float up from the lower equipment bay on cue.

Even better, we're let in on a "gotcha" between Schirra, Deke Slayton and public affairs officer Paul Haney that bears some explanation. Whenever members of "The Turtle Club" were asked if they were, in fact, turtles, they had to respond in no uncertain circumstances, "You bet your sweet ass I am." (members were all assumed to own a jackass). Whomever came up on the short end of the joke had to pay for the next round of drinks. Slayton had asked Schirra that tricky question while the latter was still in the boost phase of his Mercury mission, and even though Schirra recorded his answer for Slayton's benefit, he was not going to be outdone.

Schirra waited until Apollo 7 to exact his revenge. Signs asking Slayton and Haney if they were turtles were held up to the camera, and later, Schirra asked about Haney's response. Haney is not talking, he is told, "just buying."

As history - and the flight transcripts - record, there were several rather heated exchanges between the ground and the Apollo 7 astronauts. There were several debates over additions to the flight plan, concerning more experiments and television transmissions. Schirra overruled a directive from the ground for his crew to don their helmets during reentry, because they had developed rather severe colds.

Yet all of the bickering was done off-camera, and as a result, is not included in this set. These air-to-ground transmissions would have been a great touch and their omission is disappointing, but understandable: finding an appropriate place to include them would have been hard.

The issue of the crew's crankiness is addressed during a post-flight press conference that serves as the audio to the mission's 16mm film footage. Reporters ask their own pointed questions, going so far as to query if Schirra had been guilty of insubordination. The director of the Manned Spacecraft Center Dr. Robert Gilruth responds in such a way that it would make anyone in PR proud: the ground is in charge, but so is the mission's commander. An honest- to- goodness non-answer.

Still, it's telling that none of the Apollo 7 crewmembers flew in space again. Schirra retired, but Cunningham and Eisele were grounded. It's hard to tell from Shakedown why. As with some of the other Spacecraft Films sets, this release would have benefited from the addition of a comprehensive documentary that would serve to connect the dots between the vast amount of included footage.

There are no such contextual problems with Apollo 9.

The pre-flight interviews with commander Jim McDivitt, lunar module pilot Rusty Schweickart and command module pilot Dave Scott on disc one put the main issue of the mission at the forefront: this was to be the first flight of the lunar module. All three astronauts provide great insight on the first disc and on Disc Two, no stone - or stomach, whichever the case may be - is left unturned.

Schweickart's bout with motion sickness on Apollo 9 has been well documented, and he's very forthcoming about it during a post-flight chat over the flight's 16mm film clips. "Suddenly, I had to barf..." Schweickart begins, and you know this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill interview. Schweickart describes vomiting in space and, well, that's just gross.

Still, Schweickart is open and honest about his problem, without seeming the least bit embarrassed. It is one of the more memorable commentaries on any Spacecraft Films release to date and a great discovery in the NASA vaults. There's another memorable quote as he describes his emotional reaction to his sickness:

Is this basically a wasted mission because Schweickart's barfin'? That's all going through my mind as I'm trying to go to sleep that night. That's about the lowest point of my life.

Better yet, the 16mm footage on Disc Two is some of the most visually pleasing material released by Spacecraft Films. The television transmissions on both Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 are grainy, and at times, look like the sonnagram of an expectant mother. Look, Momma, you're not having a boy or a girl... you're having an astronaut!

Comparing the television transmissions with the 16mm film clips, however, is terribly unfair, especially on Apollo 9. There are some beautiful shots of Schweickart during his EVA and gorgeous Earth views. The familiar photo of Scott in Gumdrop's hatch is taken from a sequence that is stunning in its contrasts: the red of Scott's helmet, the white of his spacesuit, the silver hull of Gumdrop and the awesome blue and white of our home planet below.

Go/No Go: Both sets are a go, without reservation.

Apollo 9 provides the more complete story of its mission, but Apollo 7 is a quality product as well. The $35 asked for each is a bargain, considering the amount of material that is included and the missions' historical significance.

Order now: buySPACE | Amazon 7 9 | Spacecraft Films

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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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