A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that much of the footage in this well-made documentary series about NASA's history is original film shot at the time of the early space missions -- a time when attitudes toward gender and race were just beginning to change and when smoking was a lot more common. So expect to see plenty of shots of people smoking, including one of the astronauts' wives lighting up in front of her kids. It's also worth noting that minority groups were not represented (beyond clerical and other support positions) during the program's early days. The series covers the highs and the lows of the space program, including explosions -- some of which were deadly.
What's the story?
WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS, which celebrates NASA's 50-year history, starts with the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik, and, in six hours, covers everything that happened after that -- from the United States' first rockets all the way up to the modern space station project. Although it's narrated by Gary Sinise, the series places a strong emphasis on the voices of those who actually made it all happen, including the astronauts and even some of the guys who worked in mission control. There's also plenty of incredible NASA footage of the original missions, including some film of the astronauts in their capsules.
Is it any good?
As a straight history of NASA, this documentary series is excellent. It doesn't shy away from the many, many failures and screw-ups the program faced -- in fact, you'll be amazed that as many of these guys survived as they did. But it does make a few sins of omission, starting with minimal mention of the two reasons for that impressive survival rate: tons of redundancies/back ups and pure dumb luck. The other omission is that the show seems to take place in a vacuum. There's no mention of either the political environment at the time of NASA's birth or of the Cold War, both of which were key reasons that the program even existed. President John F. Kennedy's death isn't mentioned either, despite the fact that the series uses lots of footage of him.
All of that said, it's still a riveting series. Particularly impressive are the voices of the astronauts and mission control personnel. They're good story tellers, with one heck of a story to tell -- and, at the same, they're remarkably stoic men, and their understatement will drop your jaw. For example, William Anders of Apollo 8 talks almost blandly about how he figured there was a good chance that the rocket would blow up on the launch pad -- or, if it didn't, a good chance that they'd get lost on the way home. Even more interesting is how often the guys talk about how much fun it all was. Ultimately, When We Left Earth is more inspiring than not and is a mostly good telling of what were then -- and still are today -- phenomenal feats of engineering, science, and courage.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the media tends to portray space exploration. Does this series match that depiction or present things in a new light? Did your opinion of NASA change after watching the show? Families can also discuss what isn't addressed in the series -- such as the fact that, in the program's early days, minorities and women weren't included or considered for participation. How do you think the politics and social issues of the time affected what was happening with NASA? How do you think current events affect space exploration today?
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