If you have a sense of deja vu during the two-part, four-hour "Moon Shot" on TBS, it's probably because you saw Philip Kaufman's deliciously irreverent movie "The Right Stuff," based on Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury astronauts. Both films tend to magnetize your eye, as if you're seeing the daring '60s U.S. space project for the first time, and both are told from the astronauts' point of view. The point of view in "Moon Shot" is specifically test pilot-turned-spaceman Deke Slayton's, and it freely blends a Wisconsin farm boy's crudeness with a military man's sense of profound mission.
This story is wrapped together in such a compelling package by producer-director Kirk Wolfinger that the post-moon shot generation might rightly wonder why U.S. manned space exploration was grounded after its greatest successes. Veteran astronauts Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, Scott Carpenter and Stu Roosa wonder aloud too. The adventure depicted in "Moon Shot" may have been propelled by the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, but it also may mark the last time American technology is driven by a purely American romance of exploration.
This is why Slayton (whose words are spoken in narrator Barry Corbin's wry, gravelly drawl) is the ideal voice for the adventure. The test pilots picked by NASA for the Mercury mission were high-tech rough riders, and tended to buck authority when they felt like it. Not all of the Mercury men were Slayton's kind of tough breed, though, and he describes a deep internal competition as strong as the Soviet rivalry.
Like "The Right Stuff," "Moon Shot" becomes very special stuff as it reveals the personal dramas behind the carefully designed public relations facade: How John Glenn's squeaky-clean image bugged some of the guys; how Gus Grissom's near-fatal Mercury landing dogged him until his tragic death on the Apollo launch pad; how Frank Borman's wife planned his funeral without letting him know; how many of the men hung around and slept with astronaut groupies; how Wally Schirra brazenly disobeyed orders during the Apollo 7 flight (and how it led him to do a commercial for Actifed).
While "Moon Shot" disturbs the heroic image of astronauts with plenty of glimpses of their all-too-human flaws, another program on the first American with lunar dreams--the Disney Channel's "A Moon Man From Massachusetts: The Robert Goddard Story"--is plain old bland TV biography. Goddard developed the first liquid-fueled rockets and the engineering that permitted space rocketry, and his story has some of the hubris described in "Moon Shot." But here, the most excitement comes from Goddard's problems with Nazi spies gaining access to his rocket plans; the real excitement of the Goddard story--in stretching the bounds of physics and the imagination--never comes across.
"Moon Shot" airs on TBS at 7:05 p.m. tonight and Wednesday. "A Moon Man From Massachusetts" airs 9 p.m. Tuesday on the Disney Channel.