From January 24, 2011
In our present information age NASA is the seminal institution for our wealth of knowledge about space travel and its effects. Though their progress may be slow, as with any scientific work, the studies they are undertaking can lead to our advancement, and hopefully our intellectual growth. They are a respectable institution, in other words. It is therefore all the more shocking to hear the first American astronauts compared to monkeys, but this is how begins From the Earth To The Moon, a twelve part series dealing with the space program of the 1960’s, and executive produced by Tom Hanks. The series as a whole deals not only with the scientific perseverance that lead to the historic walk on the moon, but also the political pressure that the space program was under to produce results.
Our inciting incident in “Can We Do This?” is the politically and scientifically horrible idea of ‘A Red Moon.” The Russians have sent a manned vessel into space months ahead of the Americans, besting them for the second time in matters of space travel. If it keeps up, we’re told, the Russians will beat the Americans to the moon. In an effort to prevent this calamity, President John F. Kennedy to turn to NASA and ask what would be required in having a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The short answer: money, and lots of it for experiments and equipment. All this money naturally leads to a conflict with politicians who do not see the big picture. Is all the money being spent worth the seemingly little progress? In a different climate the answer might be no, but we are viewing these dealings in the height of the Cold War. The voters very much fear the Russians and would willingly support their own space program over the Communists. Public sentiment, in other words, allowed the space program to continue.
Loss of public support meant loss of revenue for NASA and therefore there is a lot of pressure on them to achieve perfection in everything they do, a lofty goal to be sure. Even a small misstep could mean loss of support, and therefore loss of funding (as we hear at the death of two astronauts in an airplane crash, and again when there are problems with Gemini 8’s docking mission). This pressure aside, though, it would be impossible to make the ‘giant leap for mankind’ without first taking small steps. These small steps include: 1. achieving orbit, 2. EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) a.k.a. spacewalk, 3. Rendezvous between two space vessels, 4. Docking of two space crafts, and 5. Long Durations in space. Each of these five things must be accomplished before they can consider a trip to the moon. These experiments are not without their problems.
One common problem is the lost of radio contact. Frequently the astronauts and mission control are unable to communicate with each other, a particular problem during the EVA when they are trying to tell Ed White, astronaut, to return to the vessel from outside the space craft. A more serious problem arises during the first attempted docking between Gemini 8 and the Aegina. The two ships spin out of control and the two astronauts save themselves only by detaching from the second ship and using their RCS (Re-entry Control System) thereby aborting their mission.
“Can We Do This” is a rather detailed account of the journey from the Mercury to the Gemini and then the start of the Apollo space programs, sometimes steeped in too much NASA jargon for the regular viewer to follow. Necessary though it it given the subject matter, this might also be a side effect of Tom Hanks’s directing. He was, after all, one of the few – if not the only – actor who could ad-lib space jargon while filming Apollo 13. This small frustration does not take away from the heart of the story, however. In his introduction to this first part of the series, Hanks tells us the achievement of landing a person on the moon was not the work of genius, but of perseverance. This is shown to be true through the many problems in the five experiments undertaken by the astronauts, at great personal risk. We see how true it is in the political game as well. With such a high price tag, the government was not likely to give their space program free reign with tax payer dollars. This was a time before deregulation, after all.