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Discovery specials fill void for space buffs

Saturday, December 09, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

We know space is the final frontier, but that tired "Star Trek"-inspired cliché is all many people know about the current state of America's space program. The media treat shuttle missions with the same blasé attitude they would the departure of a Delta shuttle flying from Boston to New York.

Me? I love the space program. I wish Aaron Sorkin would write a drama about astronauts - something better than the Corbin Bernsen syndicated series "The Cape" a few seasons back - to help restore some of the luster that's been lost from NASA's space exploration efforts.

Until that happens, we'll have to settle for the occasional documentary, like the two programs Discovery Channel premieres today (the first for adults; more on the one for children later). I've had the opportunity to review several docs about the construction of the International Space Station in recent years, some better than others.

The latest, Discovery Channel's "Inside the Space Station" (9 tonight), goes beyond the international politics of constructing the ISS - the approach other documentaries have taken - to give viewers a look at how the mammoth outpost will actually operate.


"Inside the Space Station"

When: 9 tonight on Discovery Channel.

Narrator: Liam Neeson.

"Blast Off!"

When: 11 a.m. today on Discovery Channel


Some of what's presented sounds like science fiction, but NASA personnel are interviewed and explain how it all works. They're aided by fantastic computer animation that shows the ISS as a whole and then breaks it apart to show individual pieces, what they'll be used for and which countries will construct them.

"Inside the Space Station" does a fair job explaining the challenges of constructing the ISS by showing what its speed - 17,500 mph - would look like if it zoomed directly above cities inside the earth's atmosphere. The space station could make the run from the United States to Paris in about 17 minutes.

Debris speed through space along with the ISS, and "Inside the Space Station" discusses the odds (one in 496 in the station's expected 15-year life span) that an astronaut will be injured by space debris. To minimize those odds, NASA is developing "robonauts," human-like robots that will do exterior work on the ISS while astronauts control their movements from inside the station. The technology pioneered for the robonauts may eventually benefit amputees here on Earth.

By 2005, NASA hopes to deploy personal satellite assistants aboard the ISS. These small spheres - they look frighteningly like the round, black torture droid used to intimidate Princess Leia in "Star Wars" - will cruise around the space station doing chores and helping astronauts conduct experiments.

"Inside the Space Station" isn't a radical documentary by any means. It appears to have been made with the full cooperation of NASA, and it doesn't ask any tough questions about the benefits of a space station.

What "Inside the Space Station" does best is give general audiences an overview of what the ISS will be used for, what precautions are being taken to protect the astronauts who are stationed there and how development of the ISS will lead to improvements in life on Earth.

And I can't emphasize enough the high quality of the show's computer-generated effects. Even when the information presented isn't full of startling revelations, the look of this documentary makes it compulsively watchable.

"Inside the Space Station" should have enough exciting special effects to keep budding astronauts entertained, but this morning the network offers a companion series for children. "Blast Off!" (11 a.m.) takes kids on a trip to Space Camp in Hunstville, Ala.

At times "Blast Off!" comes across as a Space Camp infomercial as it takes a "Survivor"-like reality show approach to teaching about a space mission. Two teams of kids from around the world compete to win the most points as they learn about America's space program through a variety of team-building exercises.

The kids sometimes come across as a touch hyperactive, but the hour-long program includes enough space facts - including wisdom from veteran astronaut Story Musgrave - that it's not a complete waste of time.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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