Thursday, September 13, 2007

RECOMMENDATION: Voyage to the Planets

I can't remember now how I first heard about Voyage to the Planets, a two part documentary about space travel, but it's one of the most educational and compelling I've ever seen. Made by the BBC—the best documentary filmmakers in the world—they pose the question, What would happen if mankind were ready to make its next great venture to the stars? The result is a 2 episode faux documentary, a future history of astronauts on one long "grand tour" of our solar system: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Io, Europa, Saturn... in real life, such a voyage would never be attempted, but it is a clever construct to hook the audience, and it works.

Five astronauts embark on a six year voyage collecting samples from planets, facing hazards at every turn. It's crazy. It's the kind of shit you dreamt about when you were a kid. It is, in fact, the real Star Trek.

What also makes it really appealing to me is that Zoë, my 5 month old daughter, is among the generation who will explore the stars as described in this program. If the earliest launch for an unmanned probe to Europa is 2015 (when Zoë will be 8), then a manned launch to Europa is sure to follow 20-25 years later, which puts her at 28-32, exactly the right age range. It's not that I even want Zoë to be an astronaut, but it's exciting to feel how tangible that possibility is. What mysteries will they uncover in the last great adventure in human history?

The program employs another tactic very effectively: they take pains to get you to care about the astronauts from the very beginning. Like any documentary, you are documenting the explorers as much as you are what the explorers are exploring. You want to know who they are, how they get along, what their whimsies and foibles are. Once you care about these people, you care what happens to them. My wife didn't think she'd like this documentary, but every time the astronauts suited up, she was stressed out for them. Given the range of hazards they face on their voyage, there's no shortage of entertainment watching them insinuate their way to safety.

And did I forget to mention that one of the astronauts was named Zoë?

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