Sunday Moment of Zen: Mars by Night

Even as manned, governmental, spaceflight moves ever further away from practicality, robotic spaceflight is having some extraordinary successes. The Curiosity rover is a standout, a car sized robot rover that has trundled around Mars for months. The images Curiosity has sent back are remarkable because of their immediacy. There’s no saluting spacesuited figure telling us this is another world that we’re not on, just the point of view of an extraordinary machine. One that sometimes we can’t help but imagine isn’t super pleased about being marooned.

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From The Earth to the Moon: Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 fire still haunts NASA, its shadow cast over the entire history of American manned spaceflight, coloring accident investigation, astronaut safety, engineering, every element of the process. Manned spaceflight has lots of ghosts, and whilst Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White weren’t the first, they have stayed at the banquet for decades and show no signs of leaving

Three men inside the capsule, four men outside. Graham Yost’s script focusses on Harrison Storms, the head of North American Aviation’s Apollo Program, Joseph Shea, his opposite number at NASA, Deke Slayton, the Head of the Astronaut Program and Frank Borman, the astronaut detailed to the investigation. Grissom, Chaffee and White are present too, of course, but in black and white flashbacks, matinee idols with chiselled jaws and gentle, total self-belief.

James Rebhorn is an actor best known for playing adversarial figures of authority and superficially, that’s what he plays here. Storms is an arrogant, confrontational figure, attacking the relationship with NASA and Shea in particular rather than accepting his own role in the tragedy. At first glance, he gives every indication of being the villain of the piece but no one is allowed to be something as comfortable as just the villain of the piece here. The moment where we see Storms, from a distance, weeping with grief at what’s happened, is one of the most affecting in the entire series as is the point where Storms goes into battle for the jobs of his colleagues and himself only to be told that’s not what this is about, and it never was. It’s about Grissom, Chaffee and White. Four men outside the capsule, three men in.

Kevin Pollack, as Joe Shea, plays to his past work the same way Rebhorn does, and, like Rebhorn, is given the opportunity to subvert that. Pollack is both a gifted character actor and a professional stand-up comedian and his combination of reservation, reticence and barely contained energy lights up every scene he’s in, especially his confrontations with Rebhorn. Shea was a famously bullish figure, a man who rode North American Aviation mercilessly and Pollack brings not only that, but a quiet intelligence to the role. Shea and Slayton were, at one point, supposed to toss a coin to see which of them sat in the capsule during the test and the fact neither of them were in there haunts both men. For Slayton, it’s a failure to care for the men under him but for Shea, it’s a chance to save lives, an opportunity that passes so close to him he can feel it. If NASA is haunted by Grissom, Chaffee and White, Shea is haunted by the ghost of what he could have done, what he feels he should have done.

Frank Borman, played by David Andrews, is, superficially, the least important of the four. He’s the astronaut on the investigative committee but in the light of the Apollo 1 fire, the astronaut corps are clearly portrayed as lesser, fragile, mortal. Andrews is a thoughtful, considered actor and those qualities mesh perfectly with Yost’s writing, portraying Borman as a quiet, centred man, an academic in an aviator’s buzzcut. Yet it’s Borman who holds the power as the Senate Enquiry into the accident begins. His friends are dead, because engineers made a mistake and there’s a perception that Borman may have an axe to grind. In fact, there’s a perception that Borman deserves to attack the program.

Borman’s testimony is as stereotypical as it is fascinating. He starts off as a typical military pilot, tight, controlled posture, precise language but when he’s asked about the astronauts, the men, not the mission, he lights up. Andrews’ posture shifts, his voice changes, he becomes more relaxed, more open. There’s still the formality that comes from military training, the consideration that comes from the unique combination of scientist and soldier that an astronaut needs to be, but suddenly, Grissom, Chaffee and White are in the room, still dead but somehow closer, more real which makes the second half of Borman’s testimony all the harder to listen to. He transitions from recollections of his friends and colleagues to a passionate defence, using Grissom’s own words, of the program to a dispassionate, intellectual description of their deaths. Not because he doesn’t care, he does, that much is certain, but because the reasons why they died are as important, as defining as their deaths. Borman’s message is as clear as it is unsaid; We got it wrong, all of us, let us get it right, for Gus, Ed and Roger.

A quarter inch to the left or the right tonally and the episode would collapse under the weight of Borman effectively talking the project back into life. Instead, through Andrews’ quiet, controlled performance and Yost’s writing, this becomes a hinge around which history turns. The program starts again, the men are remembered, the mission continues.

The episode begins and ends with Deke Slayton, the Chief Astronaut. Played by Nick Searcy, Slayton was one of the most fascinating figures in modern spaceflight, a Mercury project astronaut grounded after one flight, and seemingly forever, by a heart condition. He became the head of the Astronaut Corps and Searcy plays him as a quiet, almost reticent figure. He’s somewhere between everyone’s father and older brother, an unusual combination of a man both broken and defined by his place, halfway between the launchpad and the boardroom. Just as Slayton was the connective tissue between multiple incarnations of the space program, Searcy is the connective tissue between each episode of the series, each level of the bureaucracy, from the NASA hierarchy to the astronauts’ families and he’s rarely better than he is here.

As the episode opens we see Slayton in Mission Control, and, as it closes, we see him visit the wives of the dead crew who give him a present from their husbands; an astronaut pin. Like Borman’s testimony it’s a moment which is a quarter step away from crass emotional manipulation but here, the writing, directing and performance meshes to create something extraordinary. Throughout the episode, the flashbacks to the fire are shown in black and white. In the final seconds, that changes as we see Slayton looking at the capsule as Grissom turns, nods to him and smiles. The physical, practical and spiritual combine, the burden of grief and blame and guilt is lifted just a little. As the episode closes, as Grissom moves back into colour and prepares for a very different kind of launch, the message is as clear as it is unspoken; time to go back to work. The man spearheading that return, Commander Wally Schirra, is the focus of the next episode.

Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 fire still haunts NASA, its shadow cast over the entire history of American manned spaceflight, coloring accident investigation, astronaut safety, engineering, every element of the process. Manned spaceflight has lots of ghosts, and whilst Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White weren’t the first, they have stayed at the banquet for decades and show no signs of leaving

Three men inside the capsule, four men outside. Graham Yost’s script focusses on Harrison Storms, the head of North American Aviation’s Apollo Program, Joseph Shea, his opposite number at NASA, Deke Slayton, the Head of the Astronaut Program and Frank Borman, the astronaut detailed to the investigation. Grissom, Chaffee and White are present too, of course, but in black and white flashbacks, matinee idols with chiselled jaws and gentle, total self-belief.

James Rebhorn is an actor best known for playing adversarial figures of authority and superficially, that’s what he plays here. Storms is an arrogant, confrontational figure, attacking the relationship with NASA and Shea in particular rather than accepting his own role in the tragedy. At first glance, he gives every indication of being the villain of the piece but no one is allowed to be something as comfortable as just the villain of the piece here. The moment where we see Storms, from a distance, weeping with grief at what’s happened, is one of the most affecting in the entire series as is the point where Storms goes into battle for the jobs of his colleagues and himself only to be told that’s not what this is about, and it never was. It’s about Grissom, Chaffee and White. Four men outside the capsule, three men in.

Kevin Pollack, as Joe Shea, plays to his past work the same way Rebhorn does, and, like Rebhorn, is given the opportunity to subvert that. Pollack is both a gifted character actor and a professional stand-up comedian and his combination of reservation, reticence and barely contained energy lights up every scene he’s in, especially his confrontations with Rebhorn. Shea was a famously bullish figure, a man who rode North American Aviation mercilessly and Pollack brings not only that, but a quiet intelligence to the role. Shea and Slayton were, at one point, supposed to toss a coin to see which of them sat in the capsule during the test and the fact neither of them were in there haunts both men. For Slayton, it’s a failure to care for the men under him but for Shea, it’s a chance to save lives, an opportunity that passes so close to him he can feel it. If NASA is haunted by Grissom, Chaffee and White, Shea is haunted by the ghost of what he could have done, what he feels he should have done.

Frank Borman, played by David Andrews, is, superficially, the least important of the four. He’s the astronaut on the investigative committee but in the light of the Apollo 1 fire, the astronaut corps are clearly portrayed as lesser, fragile, mortal. Andrews is a thoughtful, considered actor and those qualities mesh perfectly with Yost’s writing, portraying Borman as a quiet, centred man, an academic in an aviator’s buzzcut. Yet it’s Borman who holds the power as the Senate Enquiry into the accident begins. His friends are dead, because engineers made a mistake and there’s a perception that Borman may have an axe to grind. In fact, there’s a perception that Borman deserves to attack the program.

Borman’s testimony is as stereotypical as it is fascinating. He starts off as a typical military pilot, tight, controlled posture, precise language but when he’s asked about the astronauts, the men, not the mission, he lights up. Andrews’ posture shifts, his voice changes, he becomes more relaxed, more open. There’s still the formality that comes from military training, the consideration that comes from the unique combination of scientist and soldier that an astronaut needs to be, but suddenly, Grissom, Chaffee and White are in the room, still dead but somehow closer, more real which makes the second half of Borman’s testimony all the harder to listen to. He transitions from recollections of his friends and colleagues to a passionate defence, using Grissom’s own words, of the program to a dispassionate, intellectual description of their deaths. Not because he doesn’t care, he does, that much is certain, but because the reasons why they died are as important, as defining as their deaths. Borman’s message is as clear as it is unsaid; We got it wrong, all of us, let us get it right, for Gus, Ed and Roger.

A quarter inch to the left or the right tonally and the episode would collapse under the weight of Borman effectively talking the project back into life. Instead, through Andrews’ quiet, controlled performance and Yost’s writing, this becomes a hinge around which history turns. The program starts again, the men are remembered, the mission continues.

The episode begins and ends with Deke Slayton, the Chief Astronaut. Played by Nick Searcy, Slayton was one of the most fascinating figures in modern spaceflight, a Mercury project astronaut grounded after one flight, and seemingly forever, by a heart condition. He became the head of the Astronaut Corps and Searcy plays him as a quiet, almost reticent figure. He’s somewhere between everyone’s father and older brother, an unusual combination of a man both broken and defined by his place, halfway between the launchpad and the boardroom. Just as Slayton was the connective tissue between multiple incarnations of the space program, Searcy is the connective tissue between each episode of the series, each level of the bureaucracy, from the NASA hierarchy to the astronauts’ families and he’s rarely better than he is here.

As the episode opens we see Slayton in Mission Control, and, as it closes, we see him visit the wives of the dead crew who give him a present from their husbands; an astronaut pin. Like Borman’s testimony it’s a moment which is a quarter step away from crass emotional manipulation but here, the writing, directing and performance meshes to create something extraordinary. Throughout the episode, the flashbacks to the fire are shown in black and white. In the final seconds, that changes as we see Slayton looking at the capsule as Grissom turns, nods to him and smiles. The physical, practical and spiritual combine, the burden of grief and blame and guilt is lifted just a little. As the episode closes, as Grissom moves back into colour and prepares for a very different kind of launch, the message is as clear as it is unspoken; time to go back to work.   The man leading that return, the commander of the first manned Apollo mission to reach space, would be Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra, a veteran astronaut and the focus of the next episode.