NASA launches 50 years of space history in high-definition documentary

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    NASA launches 50 years of space history in high-definition documentary

    Fans hope a dazzling new documentary helps the agency reach for the future.

    NASA launches 50 years of space history in high-definition documentary -- --

    WASHINGTON - John Glenn, even today, still looks like the ex-Marine who was the first American to orbit the Earth.

    At 86, he's trim and erect, and jokes about his age. But he's dead serious about the contrast between what was then -- a space program on the cutting edge of the future, back in 1962 when he rode Friendship 7 into orbit -- and the NASA of today.

    The agency doesn't get enough money, he fumed. American education is falling behind. If these problems aren't fixed, the U.S. will lose its lead in space.

    "Great plans without resources remain dreams," he said, quoting an old general.

    Glenn, also a former U.S. senator, visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to help introduce a remembrance of NASA's glory days in hopes of gaining support for the agency's future.

    He was there to help tout a new Discovery Channel documentary, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, set for debut this June. The series, which focuses on NASA's early years, draws on more than 150 hours of old NASA footage.

    But with one change: It's been converted to high-definition.

    The difference is striking. It's a cross between The Right Stuff and Planet Earth. And NASA gets to keep the new footage as part of the deal.

    In one HD scene, astronaut Ed White floats on a spacewalk above a stunningly blue ocean. In another segment, members of a Gemini crew joked, stumbled and swam as they experienced weightlessness aboard a "vomit comet" trainer plane.

    U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew aboard a space shuttle while serving in Congress, wasn't subtle about the comparison between then and now.

    "One of the reasons for this occasion today is for us to rekindle the memories of the glory days, of that moment in time when the hearts of every American beat just a little bit faster for the tremendous accomplishments of this country," said Nelson, D-Fla.

    Nowadays, NASA faces a budget crunch and a demanding -- if indefinite -- mission to return astronauts to the moon and, maybe, Mars.

    Glenn remains one of the public faces of the agency, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and other men who flew into space nearly 40 years ago.

    By contrast, the only current astronaut whose name comes to mind is Lisa Nowak, who was fired from the corps after being accused last year of driving cross-country in diapers to attack a romantic rival in Orlando.

    Glenn acknowledged that the drama -- and the thrill -- of the '60s can probably never be recaptured.

    "It's natural when there is a new first," said Glenn, citing the agency's inaugural trips to space, Earth orbit and the moon. "People are more excited about it, and that's natural."

    But there's more to space exploration, he said, than moon landings. The international space station has tremendous potential to research and cure diseases. "There's a benefit for people right here on Earth," Glenn said.

    Still, an aging space shuttle and an indefinite moon mission can hardly compete with what was. "For us baby boomers, it's part of our own history," said U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science and Technology committee. "To see what we saw as we grew up."

    The hope is that those baby boomers -- including those who are members of Congress -- will be sufficiently inspired by the triumphs of yesterday to support boosting the agency budget of today above the $17.6 billion requested by the White House, to enable it to again reach for the stars.

    "NASA cannot do both the end of the space-shuttle program and the start of the new Constellation program without additional money," Nelson said.

    The Constellation program, comprising a new Orion capsule and Ares rocket, aims to return Americans to the moon by 2020, and go eventually to Mars. But its first flight isn't until 2015, five years after the shuttle's retirement in 2010.

    "We want to close that gap from five to three years," Nelson said. He said he intends to push legislation soon to accomplish that goal, though similar efforts have failed the past two years.

    Mark K. Matthews can be reached at [email protected] or 202-824-8222.

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