Most television science fiction shows fling humans out to the vast reaches of the galaxy, but a new DVD is content with exploring our own planetary backyard.
Originally entitled "Space Odyssey" during its airing on the British Broadcasting Co. (BBC), "Voyage to the Planets and Beyond" follows five astronauts on a mission to explore the Solar System aboard their vast spaceship Pegasus. A DVD version of the two-hour program is available from BBC Video.
The mock-documentary chronicles the Pegasus crew and mission flight controllers during a grand tour that swings past Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, with a final reach toward Pluto and a comet before heading home.
Developed by the makers of "Walking with Dinosaurs", "Voyage" combines spectacular images of spacecraft and landers with live actors interacting - sometimes under actual weightless conditions aboard parabolic-flying aircraft - with one another on a long-duration spaceflight.
While its six-year mission timeline, among other things, seems a bit unrealistic - it took NASA's Voyager 2 probe twice that long just to swing past the outer gas giants - "Voyage" does offer a compelling look at how humans might explore the planets and the challenges they could face.
Radiation hazards and homesickness, as well as the closeness among Pegasus' astronaut crew and the near identical look of the ship's science bay with the interior of the International Space Station (ISS), all point toward a focus to recreate what today's space agency's could accomplish if they put enough money and man-hours to the task.
"One of our guiding principles was to get as close to the truth as possible," said Tim Haines, "Voyage" executive producer, in a telephone interview. "We have someone die of radiation sickness simply because it would be impossible to be out there that long without some problems."
A failed probe aimed at Saturn's moon Titan was another deliberate choice to illustrate that things don't always go as planned during space missions, Haines said. But, he added, there was an ulterior motive.
"We knew ... there was going to be going be a landing on Titan, and we didn't want to get it wrong," he said.
The European Space Agency's Huygens probe successfully landed on Titan on Jan. 14, 2005. ESA commentators specifically pointed out "Voyage's" lost Titan probe during their pre-landing discussions and hoped Huygens would fare better. The ESA probe was carried to Titan aboard NASA's Cassini orbiter.
"Voyage" producers did consult with astronomers, planetary scientists and astronauts to add a bit of authentic flair. The results yield intriguingly designed landers and spacesuits to handle a variety of environments, among them the harsh pressure of Venus' atmosphere and the intense radiation on Jupiter's volcanic moon Io.
But there are some points in "Voyage" where the "mock" in mockumentary becomes apparent.
At one point, after receiving conflicting telemetry about the closeness of a passing asteroid, flight controllers yield to the mission's lead scientist, who directs the Pegasus crew to photograph the space rock rather than move to a safe distance to the obvious chagrin of the astronauts. And whether a mission's flight director, in reality, would allow a long-duration crew to add three years onto their flight after the death of a crewmember is also up for debate.
Even Haines concedes that a life-saving device - a magnetic field generator - that shields the Pegasus crew from potentially deadly solar and Jovian radiation, may be an unattainable piece of technology.
"One area that was very gray was that magnetic field generator," Haines said, adding that whether such a device would provide adequate radiation shielding, or even be possible to power with the Pegasus' nuclear reactor, is an open question. "We fretted over it for awhile, but eventually kept it because it acknowledged the frailty of the astronauts...and humans were the center of this."
The in-flight video of astronaut discussions, regrets and even sickness are sometimes heartwrenching with drama, though it is on Earth - before the Pegasus crew flys - that the spacefarers sound the most like real-life U.S., European Russian astronauts. And the human angle is only part of the story.
In addition to the two-part "Voyage" program, series producers also include a 50-minute documentary on real-life robotic explorers of the planets visited by the Pegasus crew. From Russia's Venus-bound Venera landers to the hardy fleet of spacecraft aimed at Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and other planets, the feature shines light on the continuous space exploration that has gone one since humans last walked on the moon.
"So many people focus on and know only about the manned exploration of space, but there is so much more," Haines said. "I think there's a tremendous romance about poor old Voyager so far from home...and those are extraordinary achievements."