`Light Stuff' shows right stuff. `NOVA' TRACKS A MODERN DAEDALUS

Nova: The Light Stuff PBS, 8-9 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Mark Davis. Executive producer of ``Nova'': Paula Apsell. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a new Daedalus legend. Their 74-mile, human-powered flight last April proved to be an endeavor of almost mythic proportions itself.

According to Greek legend, Daedalus fashioned wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son Icarus to escape from the island of Crete. He made it to the mainland, but Icarus flew too near the sun, melted the wax in his wings, and fell into the sea.

``Nova,'' consistently television's most innovative and fascinating science program, tracks a group of students and professors who were determined to re-create the Daedalus journey across the Aegean from Crete to Santorini, 74 miles away. True, they wanted to break records, win prizes, garner awards. But beyond that there was the element of setting a historic task for themselves and accomplishing it against all odds.

``The Light Stuff'' traces the experimentation involved in finding the right combination of space-age materials for a craft light enough (68 pounds) to make the journey and carry a bicycle-racing pilot, whose pedaling would power the flight. Then the fascinating film goes behind the scenes, detailing the search for the right bicyclist-pilot.

Eventually the project took 75,000 man-hours of design, construction, and testing, as well as millions of dollars. A team of five world-class cyclists trained to make the journey, marking time till one would be called when weather conditions were deemed correct.

The program delves into the history of human-powered flight as well, illustrating how previous attempts, such as the 1977 flight of the Gossamer Condor and a 1979 flight over the English Channel established records paving the way for Daedalus 88.

Suspense builds as time after time the mission is scrubbed due to high winds.

Finally, with Greek cycling champion Kanellos Kanellopoulos on call, the takeoff is accomplished. By this time the whole feat had become a major story in Greek newspapers with Mr. Kanellopoulos a local favorite to make the journey so it is only fair to wonder if the delays might have had public relations as well as scientific origins. In any event, Kanellopoulos was able to pilot the Daedalus 88 for a successful four-hour voyage, until the winds over the Santorini beach forced an end to the flight. He waded ashore and proclaimed: ``This is a triumph for science, for man and for history.''

``The Light Stuff'' is a fascinating picture history of triumph, without delving very deeply into motivation. It is a revealing saga of man's determination and endurance. But after the entertaining hour is over, this critic found himself wondering uneasily if, perhaps, he had just viewed a tale about questionable obsession.

Isn't human-powered flight merely a peculiar anachronism in the contemporary world? Mightn't all of those millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours been better spent on one of the many humanitarian projects in the world crying out for helping hands?

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