review: NASA Unauthorized, Unrevealed Secrets of Space

NASA Unauthorized, Unrevealed Secrets of Space is a  2005 documentary is available via Netflix streaming and also available for purchase from Amazon and other online sources.  Why am I reviewing a 6 year old documentary?  I’ve been meaning to get some analysis of this film down somewhere and the film has come up again via Twitter among some of the SpaceTweeps over the past few days, but most improtantly this documentary is so bad that it’s worth covering in a bit of detail.

Warning:  I wouldn’t screen this documentary for kids unless they have a reasonably solid background in space exploration history.  This documentary is so poorly put together and contains so many factual errors that it is misleading to anyone looking to it as a source of information.  That being said, it would make a fun activity for a space camp, astronomy club, or high school level astronomy, physics or history class that has enough basis to call out the errors.  Turn it into a game and see who can find the most issues with the film.

 

The film opens with grainy black and white film of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory preparing for what the narrator calls the “Rover Explorer Mission”.  There are problems here.  

  • All the film and still photos that accompany this narration are from the Mars Pathfinder mission and the rover Sojourner yet the descriptions are of the Mars Exploration Rovers.
  • There is no “Rover Explorer Mission”, the filmaker means Mars Exploration Rover.
  • The narrator even describes features of the MER rovers such as mastcam while showing Sojourner which clearly doesn’t even have mast.
  • The shots of JPL engineers and technicians use a grainy black and white aged film technique.  This is on film and images from the late 1980’s and their oldest and mostly from the early to mid 1990’s.  Did the filmaker just discover these effects in his video production software?  These effects can be used very effectively in telling a story but they are used completely out of context here and drive the story backwards instead of forwards.

Journalists and documentary makers will frequently make use of older footage when describing a similar, newer program when up to date images are not available.  That’s not the case here however.  This film was released in 2005.  Both MER missions were launched in 2003 and arrived in 2004.  There were mountains of information, images and video made available by NASA freely available to the public by this time.  Over a dozen videos still live on JPL’s website which were originally posted in the years leading up to this movie. A quick book search online finds dozens of books published between 2003 and 2005 on the MER mission so the information was certainly out there.  Either this filmaker doesn’t know the difference between Pathfinder and MER or updated the narration at the last minute and didn’t bother to update the accompanying visuals.

The film moves to a historical view of the space race between the United States and Soviet Union and wisely beings the story through the Navy Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Project Vangaurd to put the first U.S. Satellite into orbit. The filmaker shows, as one would expect, footage of some of the launch failures that occurred leading up to the eventual successful launch.  He goes on to show a footage from Gemini tests including a pad abort system test that has nothing to do with the narration or the subject at hand.  There is even a Saturn V launch from the Apollo era tossed into the middle  of discussion of early NRL and Air Force efforts to get into orbit. Even the non space-geek will notice the reuse of images over and over, presumably to fill time.

Next comes what the filmaker was itching to cover, the Space Shuttle program.  Predictably this section of the film focuses on the Challenger and Columbia accidents.  The film doesn’t break any new ground here on these incidents but it also doesn’t do a terrible job of telling the story of what happened over the program, particularly in the case of STS-51L (Challenger) and of the science performed aboard STS-107 (Columbia).  However, once the the story gets to the point where Columbia debris is being recovered, the filmaker reuses footage of Coast Guard ships searching for Challenger debris.  This might seem nitpicky but Columbia broke up over land, not water. Presenting the story this way could lead viewers to confuse the 2 incidents.

The film goes on to switch haphazardly between projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.  The film settles down for a while an focuses on Apollo for about 15 minutes and tells the story with reasonably contiguous chronology.  Keen observers might notice the heavy use of video and images from Apollo 11, especially in launch control, even when discussing earlier Apollo missions.  This is forgivable however given the 

One of the oddest thing about thi documentary is the title.  It breaks no new ground, it includes behind the scenes information and nothing about it is unauthorized, especially since the movie appears to have come nearly entirely from public domain images and films from NASA itself.  We aren’t talking journalists pounding away to get at the truth and finally triumphing via a well placed freedom of information act request.  We are talking download it off various NASA centers websites.  

Now since you’ve tolleranted my rant, you deserve a reward, get your favorite beverage, fireup Netflix, queue up this gem and try your hand at the unofficial Unrevealed Secrets of Space drinking game.

  • 1 drink each time stock footage is reused
  • 2 drinks when a mission is shown out of context (e.g. Apollo launch during discussion of pre-manned launch days)
  • 2 drinks each time a NASA mission is misidentified (e.g. Rover Exploration Mission)
  • first person to spot another space faring agency misidentified as NASA (NRL, AF, NRO, etc.) may assign a drink to anyone they like
  • drink each time a cheezy video effect is used
  • finish your drink when an astronaut or cosmonaut’s name is horribly mispronouced
  • 1 drink each time the film skips back and forth innexplicable in the time

Apollo 11 landed on the moon on this day in 1969

There are plenty of blogs and news sites that are honoring the moon landing on this date and many are doing it the same way.  I thought I’d share some interesting tidbits about what was left on the moon during that mission.

A disc etched with paragraph long greetings from leaders of 73 world leaders along with a list of leadership within congress and NASA.  Details are listed in this NASA press release.  My favorite is from Dr. Emile-Derlin Zinsou, president of Dahomey,  a country in West Africa that doesn’t even exist any longer (it’s not the Republic of Benin).  We’ll let identifying the moon as a planet slide:

“The genius and daring of a great nation today open to mankind the secrets of a planet, which, for centuries, it has  been able only to probe and to admire from a great distance through the narrow hole of its telescopes.”

The Apollo 11 astronauts were also honored by naming lunar craters near the Apollo 11 landing site after them

Read more:

shuttle themed classroom activities

As the final space shuttle mission wraps up for a landing on July 21 (teachers, watch with your class on NASA TV), there are tons of grea activities that you can do with your class leading up to the event.  One of the most rich resources is the Rockets educators guide.  Who doesn’t like rockets.  It includes shuttle and rocket themed activities for all ages with a good amount geared towards younger elementary ages down to Pre-K and K.  All activities are tied to national math and science standard curriculums.
Just focus your attention on the Orion/MPCV on top, not the cancelled Aries rocket under it on the cover…
These activities are also great for scout meetings or even high school science or astronomy club meetings.