By EW Staff
Updated March 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

You may never have given the matter much thought, but every time you boot up your home computer, you are reaping some of the benefits of this nation’s manned space exploration program. The massive, cost-intensive effort pumped billions of dollars into scientific research and development, and accelerated the development of computer technology, probably by years. In other words, to paraphrase an old joke, if it weren’t for NASA, we’d all be playing our CD- ROMs on eight-track tape decks. It seems only fitting, then, that three brand-new discs-FOR ALL MANKIND (Voyager, CD-ROM for Macintosh, $49.95), MULTIMEDIA SPACE EXPLORER (Betacorp, CD-ROM for PC/Windows, $49.95), and NEXT STOP: MARS? (IVI Publishing, CD-ROM for PC and Mac, $45)-pay tribute to this peculiarly American space obsession, which, judging from the massive crowd that came to watch the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavor on March 2, is still in full force. Basically a repackaging of the Oscar-nominated 1989 documentary of the same name, Mankind deals with a narrow but thick slice of space history, the Apollo missions of 1968-72. It kicks off in 1962 with an electrifying speech by John F. Kennedy, who sounds like a mad scientist as he raves about ”a giant rocket, more than 300 feet tall, made of new metal alloys on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body.” Performances like that make you appreciate Mankind’s presenting the script alongside the images-even as the grainy, quarter-screen video makes you appreciate the virtues of old-fashioned VCRs. This disc’s main problem is that the multimedia presentation plays against the strengths of the original documentary. What made For All Mankind such a compelling piece of filmmaking was director Al Reinert’s decision to focus on the human side of the Apollo missions, rather than on all the cold, shiny hardware. This CD-ROM attempts to ”improve” upon the source material by putting all the cold, shiny hardware back in, allowing you, for example, to cut away from the story in progress and inspect schematic diagrams of spacecraft. If it’s hardware you want, you get tons of it in Multimedia Space Explorer, which barely has a human side at all-nor, judging by its treatment of the Space Shuttle program, much of a heart. Astonishingly, in more than 1,200 pages of shuttle-mission summaries, not to mention stacks of razor-sharp photographs and video clips, the most horrific event of the last 20 years of space exploration, the Challenger disaster, is barely alluded to. (The mission has been expunged completely from two of three chronological listings, along with the names of all the Challenger astronauts!) Much of the info on this disc was provided by NASA, which may explain the bizarre inclusion of a letter from Majel Barrett, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, urging Trek fans to demand the restoration of funds for NASA’s pet project-a permanent space station. Despite its high gloss, Explorer is multimedia as propaganda. I wanted to test my own theories of space flight by launching it into orbit. Dealing in reality rather than in an edited version of it, Next Stop: Mars? doesn’t flinch from examining the ramifications of the Challenger explosion or from placing space exploration in its too-often-neglected social and political context. Ostensibly designed for children, Mars is soothing and informative as it leads you on a tour of space-inspired speculation and technology, from 400 b.c. to the present. Along the way, there are incisive biographies of such visionaries as Victor Hugo and Jules Verne; easy-to-follow maps of the solar system; and fascinating videos of the Martian surface. Best of all, Mars’ nonjudgmental presentation lets you make up your own mind about the benefits and drawbacks of future space travel-a concept with which the creators of For All Mankind, though not those of Multimedia Space Explorer, would surely agree. For All Mankind: B Multimedia Space Explorer: C- Next Stop: Mars?: A-