If you're fascinated by all things related to rockets, trips to the moon, and the inner workings of the US space program (and who isn't), then you won't want to miss Discovery's new miniseries, When We Left Earth. It traces the 50-year history of the Space Age in the United States, and is packed with footage from NASA's archives that is getting its first public showing (including color film of the first spacewalk). You can see a clip here, dealing with what the astronauts went through as they waited for that first crewed moon flight in 1969. Will we ever see crewed space flights like this again?

Over at the New York Times, John Schwartz has seen the whole miniseries and says it has a not-so-subtle message: Will we continue to fund the space program? He writes:

Along with the drama of the Discovery programs and the overwrought musical score and the sometimes-portentous narration by [Gary] Sinise is, always, the message of the series: Human space exploration is worthwhile, even necessary. While critics of the manned space program argue that robots outstrip the abilities of humans for less cost and risk, the film puts forward Edward Weiler, the former chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope program.

The telescope was famously flawed upon its initial deployment and had to be repaired in orbit through a bold shuttle mission that involved five spacewalks of unprecedented complexity. “I can say unequivocally that if it wasn’t for the human space program, Hubble would be a piece of orbiting space junk,” he says.

NASA is now in the process of winding down the shuttle program; no flights are scheduled after 2010. What comes next, a new generation of spacecraft known as Constellation, will not be flying until 2015 at best. In the middle is a gap that will be filled by buying seats to the space station aboard the Russian Soyuz capsules. That period to come will test the nation’s commitment to spending the billions of dollars it takes to send humans into space and keep them safe from start to finish. It will test the notion that we need to send people into space at all.

These are topics worthy of a spirited national debate. And the Discovery Channel has put the argument on the table.

The miniseries will start Sunday at 9 PM on Discovery Channel.

50 Years of NASA's Home Movies [NYT]