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`Spaceflight': the real stuff. PBS version of the space story proves fact can be more exciting than fiction

``Space'' without soap is an accurate description of PBS's comprehensive look at the history of manned spaceflight, sans phony histrionics. Spaceflight (PBS, Wednesday, May 8, 8-9 p.m. for four consecutive Wednesdays, check local listings) is not at all like the recent CBS miniseries ``Space,'' which tried to make the story of America's entry into the space race seem like a segment of ``Dallas'' and succeeded only in turning a serious scientific endeavor into ludicrously sexy commercial television. The new series is as mercurial as Mercury, as challenging as Challenger.

WETA/Washington in association with WYES/New Orleans is presenting writer-producer Blaine Baggett's version of the space story -- and it is all fascinating fact, truer and more exciting than any fictionalized version could ever hope to be. It is ``The Right Stuff'' without the ``pow'' and the exclamation points, without self-conscious manipulation of astronaut personalities, without one second of disinformation. In its honest way it is the true stuff about ``the right stuff.'' Or, as astronaut Wally Schirra has said: `` `Spaceflight' is not only the real stuff but the class stuff.''

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Using Martin Sheen as narrator, ``Spaceflight'' charts the history of manned spaceflight, starting at the beginning of the earliest rocket pioneers in Russia and Germany as well as in the United States, then follows rockets right into the ``star wars'' controversy. It concludes with a look at unmanned exploration and the commercialization of space, and then speculates as to how far into the 21st century it will take to have space colonies and starships.

Along the way just about everybody with anything worthwhile to say about rockets appears on camera -- Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton, Pete Conrad, Michael Collins, Gene Sernan, John Young, Sally Ride, and even Wernher von Braun. Only Neil Armstrong managed to maintain that low profile he insists upon. All systems are go as ``Spaceflight'' blasts off from its electronic launching pad like a space-bound rocket. A chat with the producer

Executive producer Blaine Baggett worries about historical distortions.

He says he objected to the CBS ``Space'' miniseries because ``if they want to use space as a backdrop for `Dallas,' that's their business. But mentioning real and fictional characters in the same breath constituted a disservice to the public.''

What would he like his series to accomplish? ``I hope people will come away with an understanding of the reasons we've done what we've done in space, particularly how it relates to the USSR. A lot of what we did was motivated by our fears.

``Secondly, I hope viewers will come away saying, `I didn't know that had happened!' Did you know that Armstrong came within about 15 seconds of having to abort his flight because he only had 20 seconds of fuel left?

``And third, I hope my series proves to be an inspiration for us to put more effort into the constructive use of space.''

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Mr. Baggett, whose background includes a degree in English, a stint in the Peace Corps, and a job as creative director of PBS, was only 18 at the time of the moon walk. Ever since, he has been fascinated by space. He managed to get the original CBS footage of Walter Cronkite's coverage for use in the series.

Were there any great revelations about space for him while doing the series?

``I realized for the first time that these guys were in much more danger than I had ever imagined. I knew they were sitting atop a volatile rocket that could explode, but that was the least of their problems. The fact that these guys got back was a miracle.

``However, the main thing I came to realize is that the future of the human race lies in space. We will soon be a cosmopolitan civilization in the broad sense of the word.''

Mr. Baggett is fond of quoting Gene Sernan, the last man to step on the moon: ``The legacy of Apollo is the fact that for our children nothing is impossible.'' Blaggett adds: ``For my generation, going to the moon was the event. For a child growing up now, it is just accepted. The technology of the space age has replaced the astronauts as heroes. You can find space shuttles in every toy store.''

In the course of preparing the series, Mr. Baggett personally went through some of the astronaut program, including the zero-gravity training. Would he like to take a space voyage in a rocket himself?

``Absolutely. A teacher is supposed to go up next, then a journalist, hopefully Walter Cronkite, who has asked to be placed on the list. I hope to be the one to go after that.''

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