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TV Reviews : 'Space Shuttle' Fails to Soar

November 12, 1994|JOEL GREENBERG

The Discovery Channel's "The Space Shuttle" is a rather unfocused, often lethargic and sometimes downright boring effort--much like its subject. In this respect, it is perhaps the perfect documentary of the nation's current manned space program.

This meandering, two-hour look at NASA's "cost-ineffective white elephant," as Carl Sagan describes it, moves at times as slowly as the giant "crawler" that carries the shuttle at 1 m.p.h. to its launch pad. The viewer is subjected to the banal reflections of an endless stream of talking heads--technicians, administrators and astronauts themselves.

While it is clear that these are extremely dedicated, hard-working people, NASA personnel have never been known for their charisma.

Producer Tim Cowling and director-writer Scott Hicks would have been wiser to tell the shuttle's story through the eyes of two or three of the more colorful participants--perhaps following astronaut Story Musgrave, "flow director" Tip Talone and a soldier in the army of technicians from preparation through touchdown of a single shuttle flight.

Spaceflight intrinsically is an exciting, imagination-provoking subject and, despite its overall vanilla flavor, "The Space Shuttle" does have its moments: some spectacular, but far too infrequent, footage of the dicey repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and other missions; Talone's poignant commentary as he wanders through the eerie remnants of the Apollo moon-shot program, which are "just lying in the sand . . . like bones in a graveyard" at the Kennedy Space Center; Musgrave's matter-of-fact admission that "I'm scared to death of launches"; the revelation that the astronauts wear diapers for takeoff; and a technician's tearful recollections of the program's only fatal flight, the Challenger.

Even just a short clip inserted from the Apollo days of the 1960s reminds the viewer of how uninspiring the manned space program has become in the last quarter century. The documentary could have used this theme of decline from the "right stuff" days to sharpen its production and give it some perspective.

* "The Space Shuttle" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. and midnight on cable's Discovery Channel.

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