NASA and HBO come in for a soft landing 

As the cliché teaches, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. A little-known corollary states that those who elect to whitewash the past are rewarded with their own HBO miniseries. That's just what happens this Sunday, April 5, as the pay-cable network begins airing "From the Earth to the Moon," a 12-part, filmed-in-Central Florida production that puts a happy face on the track record of the space program -- and in one episode, on an entire, turbulent year in our nation's recent history.

Executive producer Tom Hanks and co-producer Ron Howard (who teamed behind the far better feature film "Apollo 13") paint the heyday of NASA in broad strokes, from the exploratory Gemini and Mercury missions to the end-of-an-era flight of Apollo 17. The idea is to stir the soul with a testimony to the human (read: American) spirit that put men on the moon, supported by plenty of whiz-bang footage and a melodramatic, string-heavy musical score. The end result, however, is so resolutely biased and unsophisticated that it plays into the hands of those who dismiss the race for space.

The warning signs go up in the second episode, "Apollo 1," in which a demonically portrayed U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale (John Slattery) seeks to pull NASA's plug in favor of aid to the poor and other earthbound social programs. The biggest blunder comes in the fourth episode, "1968." In this overly ambitious hour, Hanks and Howard posit that the majesty of the Apollo 8 mission somehow outweighed the internal political and civil rights struggles that made that year one of the bloodiest of the decade. Such a thesis is unprovable, and the episode doesn't try all that hard to support it. We're shown some threadbare footage of the Vietnam atrocities and civil unrest -- bereft of context or explanation -- that marked the year, and a scene in which astronaut Frank Borman's wife (Rita Wilson) is seen placing a call to her husband for solace after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The crises are neatly forgotten as Borman (David Andrews) and his sketchily drawn, square-jawed crew go about the more important business of becoming the first men to witness the Earth rise over the moon.

Only at the end does the message reassert itself, when Borman is read a telegram from an ordinary U.S. citizen: "You saved 1968," she wrote. The citizen apparently has ESP, for we haven't seen any of what she's talking about. We've merely witnessed three short-haired white men orbit a planet with which they seem utterly uninvolved.

It's even more disheartening that the episode was written by Al Reinert, whose jaw-dropping 1989 documentary, "For All Mankind," made space travel a matter of spiritual discovery that nearly rendered moot qualms about the NASA program's worth. Here, Reinert can't begin to convey such a sense of wonder: Borman may actually have uttered the line, "Wow, it's pretty," when witnessing the Earth from his faraway perch, but on film it rings ridiculously hollow.

Muted drama is almost inevitable when a project elects to operate according to such a clear and narrow agenda. Hanks' and Howard's well-documented, and no doubt deeply felt, passion for astronaut lore has left them blind to any scenarios in which the drive to conquer the cosmos isn't a noble and justified cause. It's a stance that should suit NASA just fine: At a time in which the space program deserves a radical rethinking, this production amounts to a huge PR stunt -- even better than putting John Glenn back into orbit.

Mischaracterizing the events of the past may make for substandard television, but it's an even shakier launching pad for a new round of policy-making. The ideologies at work in "From the Earth to the Moon" are the ones that may well "save" our 1998, 1999 and new millennium years as well. But we would do well to ask ourselves the same questions that NASA should have asked itself long ago: Where are we going? And why?


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