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PBS offers a chance to get spaced out

Sunday, December 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars, Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and Mars

- "Fly Me to the Moon" lyrics by Bart Howard

I've always wanted a NASA jumpsuit.


"Space Station"

When: Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. on WQED/WQEX


Of course, I can't imagine wearing one except maybe to a Halloween party. Regardless, the space program fascinates me: The excitement of a shuttle launch, the danger of space exploration, the opportunity to be a hero in an age when heroes are few.

I also have enormous respect for the people who strap themselves onto what is essentially a bomb and pray to God they make it back to Earth in one piece.

As a member of the generation most haunted by the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger (our Kennedy assassination), America's space program routinely gets me choked up. When a shuttle launches and I happen to see it live on CNN, I can't help but hold my breath when it nears the point the mission commander says, "Roger, go at throttle up."

"Apollo 13" made me misty-eyed and some segments of HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon" did the same.

But as much as I admire America's space program, I don't love "Space Station" (8 p.m. Tuesday on WQED), a two-part documentary from Houston Public Television.

"Space Station" informs, but it's as bland as the freeze-dried ice cream astronauts eat.

The best documentaries enlighten viewers, but they also entertain or grab our emotions. Rick Sebak's shows for WQED do the former, the IMAX film "Everest" successfully accomplished the latter. "Space Station" plays more like something you'd watch in a high school science class, especially this week's first hour.

Astronauts stay in the background during Tuesday's "The Journey Begins," as they should. This is the story of the project managers who worked on the International Space Station and the bureaucrats who gave it the rubber stamp of approval.

Rather than focus on one specific behind-the-scenes person and follow the space station's creation from their viewpoint - giving the documentary a grounded perspective - "The Journey Begins" bounces all over the place, introducing people who offer only sound bites. None of them are on screen long enough to become characters viewers care about.

Because it lacks central characters and makes no effort to create an emotional connection, "Space Station" will likely bore anyone who isn't a space junkie. But for those who haven't become jaded by space flight, "Space Station" offers intriguing insights.

"The Journey Begins" shows the effort to sell the space station concept to the American public so the project could secure funding. Much of the program deals with Americans trying to figure ways around problems with Russia, America's delinquent space station partner. Problems with Boeing, the contractor working with NASA to bring the space station to fruition, are also highlighted.

Scenes of workers building space station modules depict the painstaking process of vacuuming every stray shard of metal when a hole is drilled lest a sliver get loose in zero gravity and muck up the space station's electrical system.

Part Two, airing Dec. 28, looks at "The Next Step" and spends more time with the astronauts. This hour does a better job of trying to draw out the personalities of the people interviewed, including Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who worked in mission control on the flight that connected America's Unity Node and Russia's Zarya, the first two pieces of the space station.

"Space Station" - written, produced and directed by Karl Sabbagh - tries to make the technical clear, but it doesn't always succeed.

In "The Next Step" the Russians miss multiple deadlines for completion of a service module. The Americans look for a substitute that could be used temporarily. A good chunk of time is spent on the creative and comparatively inexpensive alternative to building a new service module from scratch. Then, with little explanation, Russia's service module is suddenly back in the running and the final disposition of the makeshift American module is never made clear.

For space cases like myself, "Space Station" suffices. For everyone else, better to wait for the inevitable IMAX film than devote two hours to this sober production.

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