When I was in the first grade in Orlando, Florida our class would go outside to watch the Mercury flights take off from Cape Canaveral, so the American space program made a big impression on me as a child. Of course, now I have a daughter who is surprised to learn that human beings have walked on the moon while I remember "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." being interrupted by a news bulletin about the fatal fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1. My father was stationed in Japan for most of the Apollo flights, so except for Apollo 11 we did not get to see a lot of what everybody saw back home. Consequently, for me "From the Earth to the Moon" is a combination of vague memories and new information.
Having also watched "Band of Brothers," the other HBO documentary in which Tom Hanks had a significant hand, I am struck by how these two mini-series have essentially redefined the term more towards its original meaning. Unlike landmark mini-series such as "Shogun" and "Winds of War," where each episode picks up the main characters pretty much where they were left at the end of the previous episode, "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Band of Brothers" clearly offer up distinct episodes in telling the story of the Apollo space program. The only constant characters are really Eugene Cernan (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the one Mercury astronauts who never got to fly and ended up heading the program, and the fictional television anchorman Emmett Seaborn (Lane Smith), who represents an amalgam of all the newscasters who were big boosters of the space program.
Most of the episodes focus on a specific Apollo flight, but there are also episodes on different topics, like the development of the lunar module. There are episodes that of surprising comedy, such as when the crazy Pete Conrad (Paul McCrane) takes Al Bean (Dave Foley) and Apollo 12 to the moon, and one devoted to the pathos of the shattered lives of the wives of the third group of Astronauts. The episode on Apollo 13 is interesting in how it effectively avoids covering the same ground as the movie. We never see the astronauts, we only hear their voices, and since we all "know" the story now the focus of the episode is to show how the space program was confronted with the "new" brand of journalism that was not going to be spoon fed information and heroes by NASA. However, my favorite was the episode in which Lee Silver (David Clennon), a professor of geology, teaches the astronauts how to read the story of rocks as the test pilots being sent to the moon learn to be "scientists." There are lots of familiar faces in these episodes (the proverbial too many to name), but for those who remember the indelible bad boy characters created by McCrane and Clennon on "E.R." and "thirtysomething," there is a special joy in which them play good guys.
"From the Earth to the Moon" is not as informative as a documentary, but it certainly focus on the actual nuts and bolts of sending men to the moon. Actually it does this in a rather engaging manner, and the way in which it combines NASA technology with human drama is one of the strengths of the mini-series. Almost all of the astronauts come out of the series with their images as heroes intact (providing you do not ask their ex-wives), the exceptions being Buzz Aldrin (Bryan Cranston), who really wanted to get out on the moon before Neil Armstrong (Tony Goldwyn), and Alan Shepard (Ted Levine), who we always knew was the grand old S.O.B. of the space program. But even so both men merely come across as being decidedly human. Whether you actually were around at the time to go outside and look up at the moon knowing there were a couple of Americans walking around hitting a golf ball, picking up rocks, and dropping a hammer and a feather at the same time, or this is all just history come alive, you should find this an excellent series of adventures in and about outer space.