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Go / No Go :
"The Race To The Moon" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   The History Channel
Release:   2004
Length:   3 hours, 52 minutes, plus extras
MSRP:   $29.95
Extras:   Gene Kranz, writer/producer/co-director Rushmore DeNooyer and editor/co-producer Tony Bacon commentary on "Failure Is Not An Option"; photo gallery

This two disc set combines four programs that previously aired on The History Channel: "Failure Is Not An Option," "Code Name: Project Orion," "Modern Marvels: Apollo 13" and "Modern Marvels: The Space Shuttle."

There could be no finer an account of the men in Mission Control than that given in Failure Is Not An Option. Based on Gene Kranz's biography of the same title, the show is dedicated to the ground-bound flight controllers who made America's landings on the Moon possible.

Kranz is the star of the show, and his input proves to be invaluable. Many of Kranz's contemporaries are included - Chris Kraft, Jerry Bostick, Steve Bales, John Aaron and John Llewellyn, to name a few. It's their participation that makes Failure much more than the average documentary.

Most are familiar with the history of the space program as told from the viewpoint of the astronauts; In contrast in Failure, astronaut participation is minimal and used only to accentuate the story of what was happening in Mission Control. It's never been done like that before.

The compelling sequences are almost too many to list:
  • The reaction of Mission Control to Gene Cernan's Gemini 9 spacewalk;

  • Kranz, Llewellyn and Fendell discuss the Apollo 1 fire over beers in a Houston bar;

  • Bales' recollection of Kranz's speech to Mission Control, just before the Apollo 11 landing;

  • The lightning strike during the launch of Apollo 12, and Aaron's quick thinking to help save the day;
It's the segments on the Apollo 1 fire and the Apollo 13 emergency that are most telling. Kranz recreates word-for-word the speech he gave to his charges the Monday after Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were lost in January 1967. In front of him in this scene are current NASA controllers used as extras throughout the film, dressed in standard 1960s Mission Control apparel - white shirts, narrow black ties and dark slacks.

Filmed just after last year's Columbia tragedy, it gives the scene that much more meaning and immediacy. He tells his co-workers, "We were the cause..." and implements a new accountability in Mission Control. He orders them to live by two words: tough and competent. There's no doubt the man meant business.

Animation sequences, provided ironically enough, by Sputnik Studios also deserve mention. Viewers are given up-close-and-personal views of a Gemini rendezvous and spacewalk, an Apollo launch and lunar landing, as well as the Apollo 13 oxygen tank and explosion. Great stuff.

If only everything with this set could be that good.

For The History Channel to name this two-disc package, The Race To The Moon is a complete misnomer. The headlong rush to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon is discussed in detail in Failure Is Not An Option, but the show's true focus is on Kranz, his fellow flight directors and flight controllers.

Disc Two includes Code Name: Project Orion, the tale of a bizarre 1950s program to send human colonies to Mars and Saturn using the energy of atomic bombs; Modern Marvels: Apollo 13 and Modern Marvels: Space Shuttle. While the two Marvels provide a good background on their respective subjects, the competition with the Soviets was long finished when the events discussed took place.

Both features give brief overviews of the space program and mention the race with the Russians, but the three programs contained on the second disc, as a whole,Ęhave nothing at all to do with the race to the Moon.

So what happened? Failure Is Not An Option would've made for a fine single-disc release in the $15-$20 range, but in The History Channel tradition, the network opted for a two-disc set and a subsequently jacked-up price tag.

It's happened with other of their releases. JFK: A Presidency Revealed is a tremendous documentary on John F. Kennedy, but the second disc contains another and sometimes repetitive show on JFK and another feature on his father, Joseph Kennedy. The second disc of Pearl Harbor features programs on Chester Nimitz and other World War II Pacific theater commanders. D-Day: The Total Story has second-disc programs on the 101st Airborne and letters written home by World War II participants.

In each case, the first disc is a premier documentary on the advertised subject, while the second contains decent material, but is seemingly included in the package solely to justify a higher retail cost.

Extras: The feature commentary on Failure Is Not Option by Kranz, DeNooyer and Bacon is a treat. Kranz comes across in some cases as the no-nonsense former military man that he is, while DeNooyer and Bacon seem to concentrate almost solely on the film-making process.

One rather humorous exchange takes place early in the show, when Kranz says that his contract with The History Channel called for him to have editorial control over what went into the program. This gets DeNooyer's attention. Nobody told him about it, and Kranz evidently went on to exercise that control in certain instances.

Later, DeNooyer and Bacon drone on for a bit about their decision to include a sequence covering the first Gemini rendezvous over objections from THC executives. They discuss the matter well into another chapter on Cernan's near-disastrous Gemini 9 spacewalk, when Kranz brings them instantly back into focus. You almost get the image of a military officer calling his troops to attention.

Rounding out the special features is a behind-the-scenes gallery of photos taken during the making of Failure.

Go/No Go: Go, but do not pay full retail. Failure Is Not An Option is an exceptional and unique program, but there's nothing really out of the ordinary about the material on the second disc. You've seen the Apollo 13 material in the movie, and the space shuttle information is fairly well documented in other sources as well. As for the Project Orion feature, watch it for yourself and form your own opinion. It didnŐt flip any switches here.

Order now: Amazon | The History Channel

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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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