A monkey pulling levers at random in zero-g could do better

10 February 2011

As a spaceflight historian, I know more than the average person about the details of the Space Race. Just as a baseball geek can cite the rosters of their favourite team for every season all the way back to a time when socks were called “stockings,” I can name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews—as well as their spacecraft names, backup crews, launch dates, landing dates, etc. Many of the Shuttle missions too. Trivial bits of data fascinate and stick in my mind, so that when I hear a narrator say the Apollo SPS (Service Propulsion System) engine used “a 50/50 mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and hydrazine” as fuel, I’m the one that blurts out, “also known as Aerozine-50.”

Even though I’m a stickler for accuracy, I try to give a little slack when I see errors in television and film. That the model builders for Apollo 13 painted the Saturn V rocket with the black-and-white pattern from the non-flight-worthy 500F “Facilities Integration Vehicle” is a sloppy mistake, but not one that detracts from the excellent and ingenious special effects of the launch sequence. I can live with episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon, “Spider,” using a piece of stock footage of a Saturn V on the launch pad that clearly shows the “S-IC-6” label of the Apollo 11 vehicle, rather than Apollo 9; and the actor portraying Rusty Schweickart using the event timer reset/count switch to power down the Lunar Module.

What galls me however, what I find utterly unacceptable, is the horribly error-prone use of stock footage by innumerable television documentaries. The U.S. space program is so incredibly well-recorded—NASA filmed everything, down to the most basic tests—that any event one might want to depict will have high-quality footage available. There’s simply no reason—or excuse—to fake it.

So why is it that we’re forced to watch, say, an Atlas rocket while the narrator describes Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight aboard a Redstone? Or a close-up of Space Shuttle Main Engines firing up, during a sequence about Apollo?

We wouldn’t accept a picture of a World War I fighter plane, used to illustrate the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Nor a horse-drawn carriage substituted for a Model T. And it’s not at all difficult to distinguish between the handful of vehicles and spacecraft that have been used for manned spaceflight. So what is it that makes this so pervasive—and, apparently, acceptable—in spaceflight documentaries?

As an aside, I’ll say that not all documentaries are culpable; the British production The Space Age: NASA’s Story which aired recently on PBS is a fine example of “the right stuff.” The four-part series was not only highly accurate in its use of archival footage, it also selected many examples of less-often seen film that avoided the clichéd shots we’ve all seen so many times that they’ve lost their impact. I definitely recommend this documentary for its clear, well-written and interesting overview of NASA history.

What really set me off on this rant is this: A History of the Space Shuttle, a five-disc box set of stock (i.e. government-produced and hence in the public domain and royalty-free) footage, distributed by Madacy Entertainment. Their stuff is usually pretty decent, albeit dry in the narration. But for this one, I had to hit the eject button within the first half-hour or so in order to resist the urge to put my foot through the television screen. A lengthy—yet incomplete—listing of the mistakes the producers had the audacity to foist upon us while pretending to know the “history”:

  • At the 4:15 mark; narrator: “Once the rocket ran out of fuel, the X-1 [rocket plane] would glide to the ground.” Image: a Bell X-2 gliding to the ground. The X-2 flew almost ten years after the X-1, at more than twice the speed. Oh, and it was painted white, not orange.
  • 10:25; “When Scott Crossfield flew the first X-15 flight…” Image: smiling pilot, in flight suit, walking toward the X-15. The pilot is Joe Walker.
  • 18:45; “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union changed history with its successful launch of Sputnik.” Image: animation of a generic rocket-looking thing, nothing at all like a Soviet R-7.
  • 19:30; “…the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2” (also aboard an R-7). Image: liftoff of an American Atlas A ICBM.
  • 21:35; “Jupiter AM-13 mission…” Image: Explorer 1. The large “UE” letters painted on the side of the booster are a dead giveaway.
  • 22:00; “Two monkeys named Able and Baker…” Image: two chimpanzees, not rhesus monkeys. But what the heck, all primates look alike.
  • 22:15; “[Ham the Astrochimp] launched into suborbital flight…”  Image: a Mercury–Atlas launch. Ham rode a Redstone. (The gaffes are coming fast now—nearly every clip is misused.)
  • 27:00; In the midst of a montage about Mercury development testing that never shows an actual test, a misplaced clip of a Gemini–Titan launch. (The Mercury test footage shows up later—during the chapter on Apollo.)
  • 29:20; “…America had finally put a man [Alan Shepard] into space.” After two correct shots of a Mercury–Redstone launch, presumably Shepard’s, they just had to insert one of a Mercury–Atlas.
  • 32:00; Not an error per se, but it’s peculiar how the section on John Glenn’s orbital flight skips from pre-launch preparations to his post-flight ticker tape parade, without any footage of the flight itself; they must have already used up all their Mercury–Atlas film.
  • 33:00; “Gordon Cooper became the first man to spend a full day in outer space,” aboard Mercury–Atlas 9.” Image: yet another Mercury–Redstone.
  • 33:55; As the chapter on the Gemini project commences, two shots of the Agena target vehicle—one as the narrator says Gemini was “named for its twin-seat capsule.” In fact, nowhere within the entire Gemini chapter is a clear view of said capsule ever shown; nor footage of any of the ten manned Gemini launches.
  • 35:10; “Between August 11 and August 12 of 1962, two Russian capsules [Vostok 3 and 4] lifted off…” Image: another American Atlas ICBM.
  • 35:20; Continuing discussion of the Soviet Vostok 3/4 rendezvous. Image: a piece of tumbling hardware in orbit, unidentified but clearly not a Vostok spacecraft.
  • 37:35; “…Astronauts Grissom and Young piloted [Gemini 3],” which (like all Gemini missions) flew aboard a Titan II rocket. Image: Saturn IB launch, followed by S-IVB staging.

By that point, I came to the conclusion that whoever assembled the footage either was utterly disconnected from the narration production, or they had absolutely no idea what the hell they were looking at. Anger and frustration at repeatedly hearing one thing and seeing another forced me to shut the damn thing off, and left no doubt in my mind that the litany of mistakes goes on and on throughout the 90-minute program. I was going to say that the narration itself is fairly accurate and not entirely uninformative—until I heard him say that after Apollo 11, “the Apollo program launched three more manned missions to the Moon.” Okay, seriously—WTF? (There were six, five of which landed.)

This box set is such a steaming pile of crap, I have to call out the people responsible for it by name. Executive Producer: Edward Feuerherd; Producers: Mike Fitzer & K.C. Hight; Scripting: Edward Feuerherd & Mike Fitzer; Research: Lisa Neil & K.C. Hight; Creation Films, 2007.

I said above that Madacy products are “usually pretty decent,” but on second thought I retract that statement. Madacy Entertainment distributes poorly produced documentaries, assembled by hacks from public-domain archives, packaged in high-quality box sets that utterly belie the recycled garbage within.

I just want historical documentaries to get their basic facts straight. Is that so wrong?

  1. Mike Pants
    December 17th, 2013 at 15:41 | #1

    Had to chime in even though this is an old topic because I want as much information as possible out there about what a thieving waste Edward Feuerherd is. I did post-production on one of his miniseries that he “wrote,” and almost the entire script was copied word for word from Wiki pages and other people’s books. No lie, you can read along with the narrator in one of the episodes from Saddam Hussein’s Wikipedia page for about 20 minutes straight.

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