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Go / No Go :
"Little Joe: Mercury's First Steps" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Release:   2004
Length:   Approx. two hours on one disc
MSRP:   $19.95
Extras:   "Modeler's Notes" alternate audio track; footage of every ittle Joe launch; film of Little Joe booster construction; DVD- ROM photo content; footage of early NASA space suit testing;

I'll be honest; I had never heard of the Little Joe program before I found out this disc was on its way to review. Manned space flight has always been my main area of interest, especially the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras.

So, no, I just wasn't familiar with the program. Little Joe? Wasn't he the guy on Bonanza?

I was in for an education watching Little Joe: Mercury's First Steps. Little Joe was the nickname given the rocket that tested the Mercury capsule escape system. If and when something had happened on one of those earliest flights, it was going to be the rockets on the escape tower that took the capsule - and the astronaut inside to safety.

First, that system had to be put through its paces, and that it was, during 1959-1960.

Little Joe was short and stubby, a workhorse that paved the way into space for the United States. The main draw of the DVD is a documentary of just over 20 minutes that details construction and testing of the Little Joe boosters.

A few of the Little Joe flights carried monkeys into space. One of the highlights of Little Joe is footage of astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn watching one, named Miss Sam, being loaded into her capsule.

Neither looks very happy about playing second fiddle to a monkey.

If there is one major complaint about the documentary (and the menus, for that matter), the synthesizer music threatens at times to overpower the narration provided by Cris Edwards. For example, the nickname for the test rocket, Little Joe, comes from a gambler's term for a hard something or another. A hard four, maybe? The music is played throughout the main feature to ill effect, and during the menus, it's just loud.

There are numerous extras, the most telling of which is a feature-length commentary by filmmaker James Duffy, Sven Knudsen of the model rocket site and David Carlton, past International Plastic Modelers Society Best Spacecraft Award winner. Although I'm not a modeler - the last time I tried to build a model, I quite literally glued my fingers together - the commentary was still fairly interesting. These are three guys who take their craft very seriously.

As this is a modeling commentary track, it would have been a nice extra to do a separate "how-to" film. Duffy, Knudsen and Carlton talk extensively about various Little Joe kits and scratch-built versions, but they're left to the imagination and never pictured on screen. Had there been illustrations, it might very well have been enough to spark a novice to try building a model Little Joe.

Go/No Go: Go, but know what you're getting. You'll be picking up a short documentary on a little-known aspect of the early space program. This one is for hard-core space fans, not someone with just a passing interest.

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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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