Part 2 of 12
Date of airing: April 5, 1998 (HBO)
Nielsen ratings information: 14.1/19 in Households
And it already became political in the very second episode. I’m actually glad that some of the Senate hearing was part of this episode, even if Frank Borman happened to deliver the most patriotic pro-spaceflight speech one would have ever dreamed of, but the political fallout of the Apollo 1 fire was definitely intriguing to me, as I cam to learn about what happened during the fire in the command module, and maybe even get a theory of why it happened. But the argument in Washington D.C. over what happened was new to me, and while I don’t know what was historically accurate and what not (questions need to be answered about what was classified and what was declassified before the shooting of this episode, but I assume everything involving NASA was never really classified to begin with, except maybe for the internal report that Walter Mondale mentioned and pressured the NASA suits with), it was still a fun watch, as the witnesses were trying their best to get out of the accident unscathed, and the “prosecutors” tried their best to save some money for the taxpayers and stop the craziness that is the space race. And let’s just think about that for a second: There were Senators who were ready to pull the plug on NASA, knowing that it would lead to the Russians winning the moon. Considering the Cold War that was already running hotly at certain points, would it have been considered unpatriotic for the Senators to try and take funding away for part of a very specific war against the communists? Trying to save money and make the constituents happy is one thing, but actively trying to push your country away from a war (whether it’s a cold or a bloody one) they were supposed to win? I think that’s an angle to the story that hasn’t been told yet. Okay, this episode didn’t tell the story, but it was close to making an argument about it.
While I was happy to see the political fallout of the Apollo 1 fire, I was disappointed to see that the episode started with the fire, instead of giving Grissom, White and Chaffee a moment to be characters in this retelling. Borman had the opportunity to tell you things about the three perished astronauts, but for the sake of the narrative it would not have been such a bad idea to have them shine as characters first. Then again, what would have been taken out of the story to be replaced by more character work? The issue between NASA and North American seemed proper enough, because it was part of the story like Halliburton was part of Aaron Sorkin’s Deepwater Horizon story during his pilot for THE NEWSROOM. Maybe Deke Slayton deserved a little bit of less screentime, although I have no idea what his connection to the story was in real life, and if he really was rattled by the emotional fallout of seeing three of his men die like that. Maybe Joe Shea’s little side plot of moving to D.C. and become part of the administration could have been cut, as I felt that it was kind of out of place here. But then again, he and Harrison Storms were pretty much part of the team, so of course the episode had to focus on them as well, and not just because the narrative needed a few people in the story who had to pay for the fire and the loss of the three astronauts’ lives — you can’t just witness three deaths and not think that you will be punished somehow.
I would have also appreciated some “alone time” with the wives of the dead astronauts. They were given short segments during the beginning, and then at the end when they gave Deke the astronaut pin, but the story was just too heavy to not also focus on the wives who just lost their husbands. NASA was about to crash and burn figuratively, because maybe the fire would have led to a shutdown of the entire program, but the lives of the wives was also altered that day, but no focus was given to them in this episode. It makes me think that FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON isn’t particularly character-driven at all and just wants to rattle down historic facts and events of the space race, including the smallest detail of removing a tiny wrench in the command module, which was something I wasn’t interested in either, in spite of the obvious ridiculousness of the caution the engineers proceeded with. I know it was necessary, and without it they probably wouldn’t have found the socket, let alone the reason for the fire in the first place, but damn, was that one bureaucratic scene. Also a lesson of how machines and vehicles are behind handled when in an accident. I’m pretty sure the same will happen when a plane crash is being investigated… removing one screw after the next, and just don’t make a single mistake. It’s probably interesting stuff for investigators and nerds who love everything about planes, but within a scripted narrative, it was a bit of a weird scene.