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Go / No Go :
"Apollo 8: Leaving The Cradle" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   Spacecraft Films/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Release:   2003
Length:   More than four hours
MSRP:   $44.99
Extras:   astronaut commentary from post-flight debriefings; on-board voice recordings; multi-angle launch footage; views of crew preparation, Saturn V rollout and pad operations

It was one of the most memorable events in television history. Three astronauts in lunar orbit, for the first time in the history of mankind, read the first few lines of the book of Genesis on Christmas Eve. Millions watched and were touched by the moment's contrasting nature, so simple a gesture in the midst of such a complicated venture.

The entire broadcast is here, on disc two of Spacecraft Films' release, Apollo 8: Leaving the Cradle.

Be transported back in time, and listen as Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders describe the lunar surface.

See those black-and-white, almost ghostly images as they orbit silently over the Moon.

Be struck, again or for the first time, as Borman closes with the immortal lines, "From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

By today's standards, and even those of later Apollo missions, the picture quality of the moment isn't great. The entire "Genesis Reading" transmission is shot through two of the command module's windows, with only a slice of the lunar surface visible and the rest of the screen in complete blackness.

If boredom sets in watching the segment however, it's your own fault. Taken in context, this is some of the most dramatic footage ever shot. Never before had NASA gambled so much to send humans so far from home, and not since the Civil War had the United States experienced such a period of social unrest and upheaval.

The space program was less than two years removed from the Apollo 1 tragedy, and had sent only the crew of Apollo 7 into Earth orbit in the meantime.

Back on Earth, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had the country in a state of utter turmoil. Apollo 8 was truly one of the few good things to happen in 1968.

And since that TV transmission lasted just over 25 minutes, there's another four hours of material to enjoy.

Its noted that this release is a vast improvement over the original Spacecraft Films' Apollo 8 effort, which came out before the company teamed with Twentieth Century Fox. The release of "Special Edition" DVDs after a bare-bones effort had already been put on the market is a particular pet peeve, but this set is an exception to the rule. It's well worth the additional expense.

Added to this three-disc set is rare post-flight debriefing audio to segments that previously had no audio track. What's being discussed in the debriefing sessions rarely, if ever, has anything to do with the onscreen images. For example, on disc one, there are multiple views of pad operations, but the audio features a discussion of lunar orbital photography, NASA managers, mission rules and so forth. Still, the footage is tremendous and the audio fascinating, because it's so unique.

The rollout of the Saturn V features only the ambient sound of the crawler's engines, but the views of the vehicle are nothing short of spectacular. There are a few shots taken from the base of the transporter, looking almost straight up the launch tower, giving a small sense of just how large that beast was.

Another plus is the inclusion of extremely rare on-board voice recordings from the archives of author Andrew Chaikin. In the landing segment on disc one, you hear the strain in Lovell's voice as he calls out the G-forces as the command module re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. On the third disc, you hear the amazement in all three of the astronauts' voices as they rush to capture the famous "Earthrise" photo, and Borman's joking admonishment of Lovell and Anders not to take any pictures because they are not in the flight plan.

Mention should also be made of the second television transmission on disc two. During the nearly 22-minute segment, Mission Control constantly gives Anders advice on keeping the Earth in the middle of the screen. The 4 ½-pound RCA camera Anders had to work with had no monitor and no view finder. If the constant movement and instruction is a bother you are not getting the picture in more ways than one.

It's during this transmission that Mission Control asks Borman if it would be possible to orient the spacecraft so that the Moon would be visible.

Ever the no-nonsense commander, Borman replies fairly curtly, "Negative. I think we'll have to save the Moon for another time."

He and the other of the Apollo 8 crew members would more than make up for it the next day: Christmas Eve.

Go/No Go: Go. Run, don't walk, to pick up a copy of this set. If you already own the original Apollo 8 offering from Spacecraft Films, pawn it off on a friend, use it for trade bait, sell it on eBay, keep it as a collectible... but get this new and improved version as well.

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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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