‘From the Earth to the Moon’: Revisit HBO’s Stirring Miniseries About Space Travel
“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!”
These words, part of a 1962 speech by President John F. Kennedy, are well known to many Baby Boomers as a key part of JFK’s full-court press to gain support to beat the Russians to the first manned moon landing. They’re also burned into the memory of some members of younger generations as the opening lines of each episode of HBO’s classic 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Long the best show in HBO’s library not available for streaming, it recently went up on HBO GO/NOW and On Demand in time for this weekend’s 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind.
In those lines, Kennedy insisted that the difficulty of the endeavor, the ways in which it would challenge us as a country, were a key reason to do it. It’s a prototypical American sentiment, one that’s appeared throughout our history, our literature, and our popular culture. Tom Hanks, who championed From the Earth to the Moon through HBO — as well as serving at different times as writer, director, narrator, and special guest star — had previously said something similar in A League of Their Own, about baseball: “The hard is what makes it great.”
Throughout the miniseries, there are scenes where astronauts, engineers, NASA administrators, politicians, and more list all the challenges facing Kennedy’s promise to put American boots on the lunar surface before 1970. In a great scene in the debut episode — titled, plainly, “Can We Do This?” — flight director Chris Kraft (Stephen Root) lists all the tasks NASA must master before even considering a moon mission. And as happens throughout the series, Kraft puts complicated issues into plain English. Describing the process of spacecraft rendezvous, he says: “Come over to my house. You stand in the backyard, I stand in the front yard. You throw a tennis ball over the roof, I’ll try to hit it with a rock as it comes sailing over. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Making a 12-episode TV season is a far simpler challenge than winning the space race. Yet revisiting this one more than 20 years later, it’s remarkable to think of what a task Hanks and his collaborators (including future Justified boss Graham Yost) had before them at the time, and also how forward-facing this very nostalgic project turned out to be.
It debuted on HBO in the spring of 1998, a few months before Sex and the City, and nearly a year before The Sopranos. HBO already had a reputation for making impressive historical miniseries, but the sweep of this one, and the technical wizardry required to recreate more than a dozen Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, was unprecedented. There is no central character — as chief astronaut Deke Slayton, Nick Searcy is the only actor to appear in even 10 of the 12 episodes, and he’s a supporting player — which means each episode basically has to start over from scratch, narratively. The Apollo 11 mission is dramatized in the sixth episode, “Mare Tranquilitatis,” which means most of the project’s back half is devoted to missions that America largely ignored even in the heady afterglow of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s famous footsteps.
The unique demands of going to the moon within seven years led to unexpected innovations: memory foam, freeze-dried food, and cordless vacuums, to name three. Similarly, the unique demands of telling this story forced Hanks, Yost, and Co. to do things in unusual ways that paid off beautifully.
The breadth of the story turned From the Earth to the Moon into a stealth anthology series. Each episode has a mostly new cast, but also a completely different angle on the larger story of the space race. My two favorite episodes, “Spider” and “That’s All There Is,” are, respectively, the extremely wonky story of how a group of overworked engineers designed and built the lunar lander, and a daffy buddy comedy about the three best friends assigned to the historical afterthought that was Apollo 12. The first half of “1968” is shot in black and white, the better to depict the harsh realities of that year in America, until things go into dazzling color for the first manned mission to orbit the moon. The Apollo 15 episode, “Galileo Was Right,” shows astronauts reluctantly learning geology in a way that may kindle viewers’ interest in the subject, while the finale, “Le Voyage Dans la Lune,” mixes the tale of the final moon mission with an account of visionary French director Georges Méliès making a 1902 movie about a different kind of trip to the lunar surface.
Though the idea of man walking on the moon can light a fire in the imagination, the miniseries gets so granular, you may feel like shaking off some lunar dust when you’re done. Yet its obvious love of the subject matter is infectious. The bulk of “Spider” involves a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors and slide rules trying to solve a math problem: What is the lightest the lunar module can be while still keeping two astronauts alive on the trip to and from the moon? Yet, like the Chris Kraft monologue about rendezvous, it puts the matter in simple terms, and it humanizes the problem enough that you, too, may feel excited when someone realizes that they can ditch the chairs and let the astronauts stand the whole time while they fly it. By the time you finish “Apollo 1,” about the fire on the launching pad that killed three astronauts and nearly took down the space program, you’ll know everything you ever wanted to know about spacecraft hatches, but you’ll also feel deeply for those left behind after the fire took Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
The diverse approach fails only once. Perhaps because Hanks’ Apollo 13 had covered so many angles of that near-fatal mission, the respective episode here, “We Interrupt This Program,” largely sidesteps it to depict two fictional TV newscasters (Jay Mohr and the late Lane Smith) covering it in very different ways. Meant as a commentary on evolving media ethics, it feels out of place even in a series that covers so much ground. And the focus on two invented characters sticks out in a project where so many of the best moments are rooted in fact.
The rest of the time, though, the anthology format works beautifully. Some episodes sprawl (“Can We Do This?” covers four years and the entirety of the Mercury and Gemini programs), while others are intimate (“Miles and Miles” focuses on Alan Shepard’s quest to get back into space after being grounded by an inner ear disorder). But all feel like complete stories within the larger one being told by the series, and the varied subjects and styles and tones means that things never get dull. It’s an incredible binge, but also one where you can watch nearly any episode in isolation and get something satisfying.
And because each episode is more or less its own entity, it allowed the casting of a small army of brilliant character actors and/or future stars. Bryan Cranston, who plays Buzz Aldrin in “Mare Tranquilitatis” — opposite future Scandal president Tony Goldwyn as Armstrong — would become the most famous (Buzz’s resentment at having to follow Neil out of the Eagle spacecraft was a nice warm-up for Walter White), but it’s among the deepest and most varied(*) casts you’ll ever find in a season of television: Mark Harmon! Tim Daly! Dave Foley! John Carroll Lynch! Gary Cole! Paul McCrane! Kevin Pollak! James Rebhorn! Chris Isaak! And on and on, all of them note-perfect. (That Stephen Root speech would be a highlight, except for all the others.)
(*) Varied within limits (as in, sitcom actors and singers and movie stars working alongside TV-drama staples), since most of the characters are middle-aged white guys. The first African-American astronaut wouldn’t go into space until 1983, and it would take Hidden Figures to tell the story of the women of color who helped these early missions take flight. But the Apollo 16 episode, “The Original Wives Club,” is an excellent corrective to the macho mythologizing, with Elizabeth Perkins, Rita Wilson, Sally Field, and others showing the toll the boys’ adventures took on the women left back on terra firma.
You can see the project’s DNA in much of what’s happened with Peak TV. Bigger names now often do TV projects with short commitments, and anthologies are all the rage again (even if most of them are anthologies across seasons). TV takes on subject matters, and the challenge of creating or recreating entire worlds, in ways that once seemed too intimidating for the small screen.
Mostly, though, it’s just a great watch that deserves to be as readily available as it now is. I choose to watch it again, glad that it is now easy, rather than hard.
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