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Voyage to the Planets still
A still from Voyage to the Planets, a fictional exploration of the solar system that attempts to be highly realistic. (credit: Discovery Channel)

Voyages to alien worlds

DVD review: Voyage to the Planets and Alien Planet

Voyage to the Planets
DVD, 2005

Alien Planet
DVD, 2005

First, a couple of stories:

Several years ago I was at a party where I met the NASA public affairs person who was in charge of the agency’s relations with Hollywood. She was bragging about how she had helped the producers of the 1998 movie Armageddon. I was aghast. “But but…” I complained in near-breathless astonishment, “it was completely inaccurate! The movie featured the worst depiction of space travel to hit the big screen since Independence Day! It was crap! It was a Michael Bay film! [A redundant comment if ever there was one.] How could NASA have supported such crud?”

She was nonplussed. In her opinion the movie was good publicity for the space agency. “NASA saved the planet,” she said, proudly. Plus, she got to meet Ben Affleck.

Second story: In the mid-1990s, a good friend of mine went to work as the science advisor for a then-popular science fiction television show (I won’t tell you which one, but it featured a hot cyborg in a very tight costume). After he had been immersed in baryon particles and holodecks for a year, I visited him in Los Angeles. “How can you be the science advisor?” I asked him. “I watch the show, and I don’t see any science at all…”

“You should see the scripts before I get them,” he replied.

Television and the movies do not portray spaceflight accurately, even when they could and even when they try. They are entertainment, not a science textbook. They exist to amuse us, not educate us. Clearly, their producers and writers do not have any problem with demolishing the laws of physics in order to extricate the hero from a lame plot contrivance.

However, we expect a higher standard when it comes to educational television. We expect a greater amount of accuracy. Surprisingly, two recent docudramas on the Discovery Channel have actually provided interesting, engaging fictional science education. Both are available on DVD and both are well worth owning.

Television and the movies do not portray spaceflight accurately, even when they could and even when they try. They are entertainment, not a science textbook.

First, a warning: This review will contain a number of spoilers and if you don’t want either show spoiled, then skip it and simply buy the DVDs and watch them—they’re good and worth your time and money. But because the prospect of two-hour educational dramas might turn some people off, this review will spoil some plot in the hopes that it will convince readers to buy the DVDs.

Voyage to the Planets

Voyage to the Planets was originally produced and aired in 2004 by the BBC under the title Space Odyssey. The format is like a two-hour documentary following the real-life adventures of an international team of astronauts on an ambitious journey through the solar system. Although their spacecraft is slightly beyond current technical abilities, and far beyond current budgetary ambitions, the show is essentially set in the present day.

Voyage consists of two one-hour television episodes. Because the BBC does not show commercials during a show, these are indeed full hours, not the typical 42 minutes of cable television.

The story revolves around the mission of the spaceship Pegasus, a mile-long international craft on a multi-year mission to explore much of the solar system. Pegasus has a five-person crew: two Brits, one Canadian, an American and a Russian. During the mission they visit Venus, Mars, Io, the rings of Saturn, Pluto, a comet, and have an unexpected flyby encounter with a binary asteroid. (One personal disappointment was that they did not visit Neptune, whose deep blue color, gigantic weather patterns, and ice geyser-spewing moon Triton are picturesque and fascinating.)

The show had a number of technical advisors, including David Baker, whose name might be unfamiliar to many younger space enthusiasts, but should ring a bell for any serious space historian or space book enthusiast. Baker authored two huge books in the 1970s, The Rocket and The History of Manned Spaceflight, that are still valuable resources today. The producers also had a number of other aerospace engineers and scientists advising them, and it shows in the overall quality of the production. Supposedly the mission trajectory used in the show was worked out on a computer, and Uranus and Neptune were not feasible destinations because they are out of position. This was a case where the science actually determined the script, rather than the other way around.

The production’s devotion to realism and technical accuracy is virtually unmatched by any previous movie, with perhaps the exception of Apollo 13. Many crew scenes were actually filmed on a parabolic training aircraft, or “Vomit Comet”, just like Ron Howard used for Apollo 13. The actors are also shown in several actual space training facilities.

The production’s devotion to realism and technical accuracy is virtually unmatched by any previous movie, with perhaps the exception of Apollo 13.

The Pegasus, unfortunately, is a rather ugly craft, essentially consisting of a long boom with a nuclear reactor at one end, the living quarters in the middle, and nuclear engines and a giant aerobraking shield at the other end. Some of the mission aspects really do stretch credulity, however. They dive through the sun’s corona at one point, and aerobrake into orbit around Jupiter, neither of which seem remotely possible, especially for a spacecraft equipped with nuclear reactors that have to dump heat overboard. Two crewmembers also descend to Venus and, although this is portrayed as difficult and risky, it really does seem a bit excessive, especially when they use a single-stage craft for both descent and ascent. A more interesting approach might have borrowed a page from some current Venus spacecraft proposals—a descent to the surface with a quick sample grab, followed by inflation of a balloon and ascent to the cooler upper atmosphere for a leisurely roam around the planet. Some robotic probe designers believe that if we are ever to retrieve samples from Venus, the return rocket will have to launch from a balloon in the upper atmosphere.

However, there are many other aspects of the story that demonstrate real cleverness. For instance, the Venus mission lands near the site where Venera 15 set down in 1974. We are told that that mission included a soil analyzer that was foiled when the spacecraft’s camera lens cap ejected and landed right at the entry for the analyzer, preventing it from retrieving any soil. One of the Pegasus team’s mission goals is to retrieve that lens cap as a souvenir, and so that its exposure to decades of Venusian hell can be examined.

Similarly, to deal with the intense radiation environment, the ship is equipped with a magnetic shield that they can turn on when needed. This forms a small protective bubble around them, which manifests itself in the form of the ship’s own St. Elmo’s Fire. But the device is a power hog and cannot be used for long periods of time.

The writers have managed to interweave the drama and the science in very clever ways, often with a poetic twist. For instance, at one point a solitary astronaut descends to the surface of Jupiter’s nasty volcanic moon Io. Because of safety concerns, she cannot land anyplace that is volcanically active or exposed to Jupiter’s high radiation. Unfortunately, as one mission scientist notes, this means putting her down on the most boring part of Io.

Naturally, things do not go as planned. It turns out that the magnetic field is greater than expected and she is placed in danger. She starts to panic as she struggles to make it back to her landing craft as night falls, but then she becomes entranced by the magnificent vista of Jupiter rising over the horizon. “Turn your back on it,” the mission commander orders her, with some regret, and she stumbles back to her spacecraft, barely surviving.

The show features numerous subtle homages to several movies. 2001 is an obvious subject, but there are a few others as well and sometimes these seem rather tongue-in-cheek, such as a sequence stolen from the mediocre 1998 movie Mission to Mars where a dust devil destroys a team of astronauts on the red planet. In Voyage the dust devil merely sweeps by and we are told that the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that such mini-tornadoes do not pose much risk.

If the story has a weakness, it is that the characters are repeatedly placed in danger every place they visit. The solar system is an unforgiving place, but after awhile, this plot device gets used a few too many times.

Because the show is tilted more toward science than typical drama, we do not get to know the astronauts very well. Zöe—who nearly perishes on Io—and the British scientist John get the most screen time, usually speaking to the camera to explain what is happening. But we also get to see the mission controllers, scientists, and flight surgeon back on Earth, and the documentary cameras reveal subtle aspects of their personalities as well. The flight surgeon is an attractive French woman who often acts as the crew’s guardian and advocate, although she is just as often trying to prevent them from taking risks as trying to keep them out of them. She occasionally seems to be a little too emotionally attached to the crew at times. The first mission control director is a quiet American with a rather droll wit who later retires to hand over the helm to his British deputy—who we see may not be as competent.

If the story has a weakness, it is that the characters are repeatedly placed in danger every place they visit. The solar system is an unforgiving place, but after awhile, this plot device gets used a few too many times. However, there are two sequences near the middle of the two-hour voyage that are particularly notable for their subtlety and their sophistication.

After leaving Mars, the Pegasus journeys through the asteroid belt. Unlike the asteroid field of The Empire Strikes Back or a dozen other science fiction movies, we are told that the thousands of asteroids are spread out far from each other and it is rare to see one at all, let alone up close. However, most of them are uncharted and by pure chance the Pegasus approaches one that has not previously been tracked. The crew debates whether or not to perform a trajectory change, calculating that the asteroid will approach to within a kilometer of them. But they are assured by the ground controllers—particularly an overly confident navigation expert—that the asteroid will pass no more than five kilometers away.

The crew is then startled speechless when the asteroid—actually a binary system consisting of a large asteroid and its small companion—shoot past just under a kilometer away, nearly killing them all. This prompts them to doubt the omniscience of mission control. The Pegasus crew dryly radios back that they have named their asteroids Hubris and Catastrophe. Meanwhile, back at mission control we see the flight director ask his deputy to come with him to the back room, where we then see him chewing the man out through the glass door. Surprisingly—and perhaps unrealistically—the overly confident navigation expert does not get removed from her post.

The second brilliant sequence occurs when the ship enters orbit around Saturn and one of the crewmembers performs a spacewalk that takes her into the planet’s rings. It is difficult to describe what happens next without spoiling a major plot event. But what initially looks somewhat like sloppy storytelling is actually very clever and complex misdirection. It is common for American television to assume that the audience is stupid and to spell out everything. Voyage, however, risks confusing the audience in order to gain a greater emotional response.

Voyage to the Planets comes as close as possible as a fictional story can to getting the science right.

Eventually the crew decides to journey on to Pluto and make a visit to a comet, even though it will add significantly to their trip. The visit to Pluto is uneventful, but the comet encounter goes badly. This was extremely well done and manages to be more tense and dramatic than either the execrable movie Armageddon or the more tolerable Deep Impact. The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for this sequence.

For anyone who already has an interest in the subject, Voyage to the Planets should be an enjoyable and educational experience. It is not bombastic, dramatic storytelling. But it comes as close as possible as a fictional story can to getting the science right.

The DVD includes a number of extras. There are 25 minutes of featurettes on the making of the show. There is also a one-hour documentary on robotic space exploration. But it is the main show that is worth your money.

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