Spaceflight reviews


Spaceflight Exploration from Chapter One

May 5, 1985  |  John Noble Wilford

Enough time has passed, more than a quarter of a century, for the space age now to attract chroniclers who address the historical dimensions of this new power to break the bonds of Earth’s gravity and travel out to a frontier unlike any other. There is, it seems, a growing recognition of space flight as an enduring phenomenon that may well transcend all previous human experience.

Reflections on the origin, experiences and meaning of spacefaring have been offered recently in books, movies and television programs. Tom Wolfe’s ”Right Stuff,” the book and the movie, evoked the early days of the American space experience. James A. Michener’s ”Space,” the novel and the television mini-series last month, enlarged on the experience to shape a fictional epic of the past 40 years. (Some critics called the television version a space soap opera; if so, what better confirmation that space flight is being assimilated into everyday life?) And last month, Walter A. McDougal, a Berkeley historian, published ”The Heavens and the Earth,” the first definitive political history of the space age.

Now, the Public Broadcasting Service has moved to the launching pad a documentary, Spaceflight, covering the history of space exploration from the early theorists, visionaries and rocket pioneers through the dramatic moon landings to the flights of the space shuttle and the prospects of star wars. The first of the four hour-long segments will be shown Wednesday evening at 8 on Channel 13.

Spaceflight is billed as the first prime-time television documentary series to offer a comprehensive history of both the Soviet and the American space programs. Some National Aeronautics and Space Administration film, particularly black-and-white footage of the Mercury astronauts in training, was declassified for the documentary. Other film, previously withheld from the public, includes scenes of an X-3 rocketplane crash. The Soviet Union also provided some rare footage of Sergei Korolev, the ”chief designer” of the Soviet program, whose identity remained a secret until after his death in the late 1960’s.

The documentary also takes note, in the fourth segment, of the emerging competition of the European, Japanese and Chinese space efforts. But perhaps inevitably, owing to the availability of so much more NASA film, the visual emphasis is centered on American endeavors.

Little attention is given to the unmanned explorations, the landings of automated craft on Mars and Venus and the odysseys of Pioneers and Voyagers to the outer planets and the fringes of the solar system. These human surrogates have encompassed far more space than any astronauts. Yet, from the beginning, the manned program, Soyuz and Salyut, Mercury, Apollo and the shuttle, have enjoyed political priority, and so they do in this documentary conceived, written and produced by Blaine Baggett.

Spaceflight is Mr. Baggett’s first major documentary. He was born in Memphis, grew up in Horn Lake, Miss., and graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. After working with the Peace Corps in West Africa, he took a job in television and soon created a docudrama, ”The Islander,” the first nationally distributed program to be produced by Mississippi Public Television. He became the creative director for PBS and then, deciding that he would rather do his own shows than someone else’s, set up his own production company in 1982. The company, called Signature, is based in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Baggett fastened his initial hopes on space. It was, at first, an act of faith. For two years of research and interviewing, he had no outside financial support. Finally, he persuaded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and then the Du Pont Company to back him.

”I was not a space buff,” Mr. Baggett said in a recent interview. ”Oh, I got up in the early mornings to watch liftoffs, like everyone else. But I read ‘The Right Stuff’ and found it fascinating. Wolfe had dealt only with the Mercury astronauts, and I thought there must be so much other fascinating material out there about space before Mercury and after.”

There was, and as Mr. Baggett said, ”I found that no one had ever done a really comprehensive look at space flight, except on a sort of mission-by-mission basis.” Moreover, space seemed to fit his own ambitions. ”I wanted to do documentaries looking at American institutions – why we do the things we do,” he added.

Space appealed to the young producer for practical reasons, too. ”Public TV is always looking for a good bargain, and space shows can be done so inexpensively,” Mr. Baggett said. ”The NASA footage was there for the cost of duplication. Many of the stars, the astronauts, donated their time.”

Mr. Baggett interviewed and filmed more than 40 people for the series. These included such early astronauts as Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra and John Glenn. In a classic ”Right Stuff” remark, Mr. Glenn brushed aside the risks of a launching with an old astronaut joke: ”How would you feel if you were on top of a thing built by the lowest bidder on the Government contract?” Chuck Yeager, the incomparable test pilot, recalled his attitude toward the new Mercury space program. ”It wasn’t flying to me,” said Mr. Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier. ”So, I wasn’t interested in it.” Others interviewed included Christopher C. Kraft, the chief flight director; Hugh Sidey, the Time magazine correspondent who was privy to President Kennedy’s thinking in 1961 when he committed the nation to landing men on the moon by the end of the decade; James A. Lovell, the Apollo 13 commander who described the explosion that almost doomed his crew, and Sally K. Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who built the American Saturn V moon rocket, is shown in one of his last filmed interviews before he died in 1977.

A relaxed, reminiscent tone runs through the stories these people tell, which probably reflects Mr. Baggett’s off-camera interviewing technique. ”Maybe it’s because I’m Southern,” he explained. ”I ask the question, never interrupt. Before too long something good, a story, starts coming out.”

Mr. Baggett said he regrets not being able to interview some of the Soviet astronauts, but his entreaties to the Soviet Embassy in Washington were met with a cool response. He also sought interviews with James E. Webb, the NASA administrator in the heyday of the 1960’s, and Neil A. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Mr. Webb begged off for reasons of health. Mr. Armstrong generally shuns publicity.

Mixing the recollections of the interviewees with the pictorial record, the still photographs of early days and the striking movies of exploding failures and soaring successes, Mr. Baggett produced the kind of documentary that has all but vanished. Events are real, not recreated. The only actor employed is Martin Sheen, who narrates the series. In his approach, Mr. Baggett acknowledged that his model was not the popular docudrama, but the Edward R. Murrow documentaries of the 1950’s. ”These documentaries are all but extinct, except at PBS,” he said.

In the first episode, ”Thunder in the Skies,” the story begins with the launching of Sputnik I on Oct. 4, 1957, the opening shot in the space age and the so-called space race between the superpowers, but then properly turns back to the more distant beginnings. There are scenes from rural Russia in the 19th century, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an obscure school teacher, laid the theoretical groundwork for space flight. There is Robert H. Goddard, the American pioneer, firing his first liquid rockets in the 1920’s. And there are the Germans, Hermann Oberth and his protege von Braun, whose enthusiasm for rocketry led to the V2’s of World War II and the foundations of the American space program.

”We knew the space age had begun,” recalled Krafft Ehricke in describing the dramatic blast-off of a German test rocket in 1942.

The second episode, ”The Wings of Mercury,” concentrates on the early days of manned space flight, both in the Soviet Union and the United States. The third, ”One Giant Leap,” recounts the struggle to fulfill the Kennedy commitment to a moon landing, covering the tragedy of the launching-pad fire that killed the Apollo I astronauts – Virgil I. ”Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee – and the anxious moments leading up to the Apollo XI landing at Tranquillity Base on July 20, 1969. No matter how familiar some of these scenes, they still bring a shiver of remembered excitement.

The final episode, ”The Territory Ahead,” encompasses the Soviet feats of endurance in the Salyut space stations and the flights of the American shuttle, the world’s first re-usable space ship. Brief notice is given to some of the scientific accomplishments of the unmanned probes and of the prospects for discovery by such future instruments as the orbiting space telescope. Then, taking note of the ”increasingly blurred” distinctions between civilian and military space activities, the show concludes with an examination of the projects for developing star-wars weapons.

”I tried for balance on this issue,” Mr. Baggett said. ”Some people complain that I was pro-military, and others complain I was anti-military. So, I suppose I succeeded in being balanced.”

As for his own future, Mr. Baggett said: ”I would love to do a special on what it takes to be an astronaut. It takes a lot more dedication now. There are not all those goodies of fame and fortune anymore.”

But he would also like to continue with his ambition to examine American institutions through the medium of the old-fashioned television documentary. One institution he has in mind is the Government’s secret intelligence operations, where, Mr. Baggett acknowledged, the sources of exciting, colorful footage are not as numerous and accessible as those for Spaceflight.

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Spaceflight Explores U.S Program

April 23, 1985 | Clarke Taylor

NEW YORK — After five consecutive nights of “Space,” the CBS miniseries based on James A. Michener’s fictionalized account of the history of space exploration, viewers now can look forward to Spaceflight, a four-part series on public TV that its creator claims tells “the real story.”

Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, the four one-hour documentaries are scheduled to be broadcast on public television stations, including KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles, over consecutive Wednesday nights beginning May 8.

“The American public will for the first time be given a comprehensive overview of the U.S. space program–what we’ve done and why we’ve done it–as well as a close look at the Soviet program that has had so much to do with what we’ve done,” series executive producer Blaine Baggett said on a visit here from his Washington, D.C. base.

Baggett strongly criticized the “Space” miniseries, which aired last week, as a “soap-oper-y ‘As the World Turns’ in space.” And while he referred to author Tom Wolfe’s nonfictionalized account, “The Right Stuff,” as the inspiration for his own series, he said the recent film version of Wolfe’s book “did an injustice to people and to history.”

“Both the movies and the media in general have taken fact and turned it into fiction, and then not told the public up front that it was fiction,” Baggett said. “There has been an absence of historical continuity.”

Three years in the making, Spaceflight traces the U.S. and Soviet space programs from the turn-of-the-century days of pioneer rocketry through the launching of Sputnik in the late 1950s, the astronaut/cosmonaut missions of the ’60s, lunar missions of the late ’60s and ’70s and the more recent shuttle programs.

The final segment in the series focuses on the future and includes what Baggett termed “an investigation” into both the U.S. and Soviet plans for the militarization of space.

The four documentaries consist largely of footage provided by news agencies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and of more than 40 interviews with journalists, scientists, military officials and all the living Mercury astronauts.

Among those interviewed are astronauts Wally Schirra, Pete Conrad, Gene Cernan, Michael Collins and Sally Ride, famed test pilot Chuck Yeager and NASA mission flight director Christopher Kraft.

Baggett said that the series also contains some material that has had little or no public exposure, including information about near-disasters throughout the history of the U.S. space program.

“It’s all there and available,” he said, referring to the documented history. “It’s just that NASA has made no special effort to get it out to the public.”

What is more unusual is film footage that Baggett said he and his production team obtained from a former science attache of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. The Soviet footage, most of which has never been seen here before, includes Soviet scientists at work and early Soviet rocket explorations, he said.

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People Magazine

Picks and Pans

May 13, 1985 | Jeff Jarvis

if you still get a little lump in your throat watching a rocket take off, don’t miss this four-week PBS series, narrated by Martin Sheen, about the U.S. and Soviet space programs. It’s well done.

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