The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s (Part 2)

To start with Part one of our series on The Six Million Dollar Man, click HERE.

Bionic Leg (NIH)
Bionic Leg (NIH)

A few weeks ago we wrote about our recent opportunity to relive our childhood memories of all that is The Six Million Dollar Man (TSMDM). Our chance reminiscence was enforced by the brutality of the Polar Vortex and the vagaries of any travel that involves Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Wintertime travel through O’Hare is particularly dicey, with O’Hare recently finishing dead last among the nation’s twenty-nine largest airports in on-time percentage (nearby Midway airport finished next-to-last at twenty-eighth, which should tell you how bad the weather has been in Chicago this year). Winter, though, may not be the most crucial of the Chicago-Aviation-Winter interaction, for Midwestern weather seems to snarl Chicago air traffic pretty much year-round.

Our extended holiday stay in Chicago allowed us to watch a two-part episode of TSMDM, and that stimulated our desire to throw a few more episodes into our trusty Netflix queue. The first one that we watched was “Athena 1,” and we couldn’t have been more pleased.

While “Athena 1” didn’t have the space age verisimilitude that shooting scenes at Kennedy Space Center provided for “Deadly Countdown,”  “Athena 1” is notable for being the first television appearance together as newlyweds of Lee Majors and Farah Fawcett-Majors. Their union was recent enough that she’s still credited as Farah Fawcett.

This also brings us to the moment of Jenny Agutter-related serendipity with our previous post on the bionic man’s exploits. Astute observers of 1970’s sci-fi culture will realize that Farah Fawcett-Majors of “Athena 1” and Jenny Agutter of “Deadly Countdown” both appeared in Logan’s Run. Full disclosure: After seeing both blonds in TSMDM, one of us recently watched Logan’s Run again—probably for the first time in thirty-years (while the other of us was helping her sister move).

“Athena 1” has a very similar plot to “Deadly Countdown” in that both episodes were thin exercises in getting Col. Steve Austin back into space via rescue missions. In “Athena 1,” Steve saves the day by leading a rescue mission—Athena Rescue—but does so at great personal peril for our hero.

Bionic Ear (NIH)
Bionic Ear (NIH)


This episode came mid-way through the first year of TSMDM, and it was an opportunity for some reflection (momentary though it was) on Steve’s plight as half-man, half-better-than-man making his way through weak plots. Ironically, its that half that’s better-than-man that breaks down in outer space. The cause of his physical breakdown, space radiation, is as implausible as the solution, a new radiation-resistant layer of skin for his bionics. We point out that the premise that space radiation would do Steve in is implausible—yes, the entire show is implausible, but we always hope for consistency in the world they created—because Steve’s bionics are nuclear powered. One would hope that Rudy Wells had figured out the utility of radiation shielding before inserting nuclear-powered bionics into this astronaut. As Steve often points out, he still has a fair amount of his “original equipment.” Without shielding in his new parts, Steve’s original equipment would have cooked.

Through the years it ran, TSMDM had a fair number of connections to Star Trek via actors, writers, and production staff. “Athena 1” was written by DC Fontana, an extremely successful woman in the then man’s world of television, and it feels as if some of those gendered experiences shaped the dialog that Farah Fawcett’s character spoke as a rookie female astronaut in the male realm of American space exploration. Fontana’s Star Trek roots show when she actually has Steve close out the episode by saying, “Space. It really is the final frontier.”

We’re cherry-picking TSMDM episodes about space as we re-watch. We have fond memories of William Shatner as an astronaut who came back with a little extra. Doug was particularly fond of the episodes about the Russian Venus probes that somehow missed Venus and came back to Earth quite upset about it. Also high on the list to watch again is “Danny’s Inferno,” an episode featuring a teenage space prodigy who inadvertently invents a powerful new chemical fuel source while playing with model rockets. Of course, in any relationship there’s negotiation to be done, and Doug’s aware that a deep dive in TSMDM is an invitation for Anna to put episodes of The Bionic Woman in the queue. Of course, Jaime Sommers is a teacher, not an astronaut—as are we.

For more on Lee Majors as Steve Austin, click HERE.

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