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Apollo on rewind

Ron Batzdorff / Universal Pictures
"Apollo 13," starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton, ranks

among the best fictional movies about NASA's moon effort.

If you're lusting to relive the glory days of NASA's early space effort, the best time for doing that is right now: Video resources about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs are at their peak as the 40th anniversary of humanity's first moon landing approaches. Here's a Top 10 list, plus a couple of extra-credit pointers to more space video:

  • "Apollo 13": Some consider this Oscar-winning 1995 movie about NASA's most agonizing moon mission to be the best dramatic depiction of real-life spaceflight - and a wellspring of space cliches. The duct tape was real, and mission commander Jim Lovell really did say "Houston, we've had a problem" (though Jack Swigert said it first). However, flight director Gene Kranz admits that he never said "failure is not an option" during the mission, though he used the phrase as the title of his autobiography. (Watch a TODAY show video about the film and the reality.)
  • "Fly Me to the Moon": If you're looking for a kid-appropriate retelling of the Apollo 11 saga - in 3-D, no less - this 2008 animated tale about three flies who hitch a ride to the moon might be right up your alley. OK, maybe the reviews weren't super, but those reviews were written by grown-ups and not the movie's target audience. How can you go wrong when it carries the endorsement of Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin (who puts in a cameo at the end)?
  • "For All Mankind": This 1989 documentary uses the best technology of the time to tell the Apollo story, augmented by interviews with the astronauts (who were then 20 years younger than they are today). The film is structured to trace the arc of a single moon mission, using footage from Apollo 11 as well as other moonshots.
  • "From the Earth to the Moon": Big-name actors and actresses take on the roles of the astronauts and the people surrounding them in this 1998 HBO miniseries, hosted by "Apollo 13" star Tom Hanks and based on "A Man on the Moon," Andrew Chaikin's history of the Apollo effort. Many of the 12 shows are not straight-on space operas; rather, they recount the moon missions from the perspective of the astronauts' wives, or the ground controllers, or even (gasp!) the press corps.
  • "In the Shadow of the Moon": The thing I liked most about this highly regarded 2007 documentary was that you get to do the time warp between film footage from the 1960s and contemporary interviews with the Apollo astronauts. Also, audio recordings and film footage from Mission Control were laboriously synched up to flesh out the historical record. 
  • "Live From the Moon: The Story of Apollo Television": This brand-new documentary, produced using Spacecraft Films' video collection (see below), keys on the way that television was used to bring the Apollo experience into America's living rooms.
  • "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D": I'm a sucker for any 3-D movie (well, maybe not "My Bloody Valentine"), but this 2005 release is one stereo flick I have yet to catch up with. The film blends re-creations of stereo scenes from NASA's archives with re-enactments of Apollo moments. Director Mark Cohen told me it's a "multiformat, hybrid, documentary, experiential something." Whatever it is, it's on DVD - but I'm holding out to see it someday at a big-screen Imax theater.
  • "The Right Stuff": One of the funniest reality-based space movies, in my opinion, and one of the best. Like "Apollo 13," this 1983 film immortalized such space quips as "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" and "Spam in a can." Like the Tom Wolfe classic on which it was based, the movie focuses on Project Mercury rather than Project Apollo. But it's so good I just can't leave it off the list.
  • "When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions": The producers behind this 2008 documentary series went back to NASA's archives and remastered more than 100 hours of footage from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo in glorious HD. Six hourlong episodes trace the full story of NASA's space effort, moving beyond Apollo into the era of space shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope and the international space station. 
  • "The Wonder of It All": This 2007 documentary is a complement to "In the Shadow of the Moon," which came out in the same year. "Wonder" focuses less on the technical side of the Apollo effort and more on the astronauts and their post-Apollo reflections. "I came away most impressed," NBC News space analyst James Oberg said in his film review.

In addition to the Top 10, no list of Apollo video would be complete without giving a big shout-out to Spacecraft Films, which offers a lineup of DVDs about space missions and aerospace topics that would easily fill a bookshelf. Most of them give you the straight stuff from each mission - for instance, the three-DVD set for Apollo 11.

For something completely different, you can head on over to YouTube and click through the Disney videos that fired the imaginations of young rocketeers in the 1950s and 1960s. And stay tuned for more to come, including an Apollo 11 docudrama titled "Moonshot" that's likely to show up on the History Channel later this year. Most notably, the Buzz Aldrin role is filled by James Marsters, who made his mark as a bleached-blond bloodsucker in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel."

Did I miss your favorite space movie? Remedy that omission by leaving a comment below. You can also review my roundup of recently published books on the Apollo missions (including Aldrin's latest memoir). Stay tuned for a listing of online resources for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.

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