When it begins production in mid-February, HBO’s ambitious 13-hour film anthology “From the Earth to the Moon” exploring the Apollo space program will be propelled off of the launch pad by a $50 million commitment that positions it as the single most expensive original project in the history of cable TV.That’s still $5 million below the $55 million spent making “Apollo 13,” the Universal Pictures blockbuster whose team is reuniting for the 13-installment undertaking originally announced late last year (Daily Variety, Nov. 30, 1995). Tom Hanks serves as executive producer of the project that he personally has steered into reality, with Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Bostick producing. Anne Thomopoulos is HBO’s creative executive on the project. Hanks further plans to direct the first film and write the final hour, but figures it unlikely that he will do any acting in the project “much as I would love to go back and play Jim Lovell (his “Apollo 13″ role) again,” Hanks said Monday. “The calendar just won’t allow me to do that:” The series, based in part on the Andrew Chaikin book “A Man on the Moon” (chronicling the voyages of the Apollo astronauts and the 12 manned Apollo missions), is scheduled to debut in December ’97, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the completion of the four-year Apollo program (1968-72). Chaikin has been retained as a consultant for the series. “From the Earth to the Moon” has likewise lined up a list of high-profile feature directors to lens individual episodes. Besides Hanks, they include Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), Ted Demme (“Beautiful Girls”), James Foley (“The Chamber”), Frank Marshall (“Congo”) and Lili Fini Zanuck (“Rush”). Others are expected to be announced soon. Writers on the project will include, besides Hanks, Jeffrey Fiskin (“Cutter’s Way”), Steven Katz (“Fallen Angels”), Andy Wolk, Jonathan Feldman (“Swing Kids”), Al Reinert (who co-wrote “Apollo 13″), Graham Yost (“Speed,” “Broken Arrow”), Remi Aubuchon, Erik Bork, Peter Osterlund & Amy Baker, and Paul McCudden. $52 mil inducement Shooting is slated for Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and in other Florida locales. The Eastern location reportedly won out for the production thanks in part to incentives of $50,000 each paid to HBO by the city of Orlando and Orange County, which was told the project would carry a $52 million pricetag. The casting process (under the direction of Meg Liberman) is under way, and Hanks said Monday that in some ways “From the Earth to the Moon” is “very attractive to actors on the A list, because it’s not a full-time gig and you don’t need to sign your life away to be a part of it. But the deal-making process is still pretty chaotic.” Hanks, a known space junkie who is said to be better schooled on Apollo history than many National Aeronautics & Space Administration vets, stressed that the film package will not play out as a conventional miniseries, in that each film is being produced as a stand-alone creation that differs from its 12 companions in tone, narrative and direction. “That’s why we need a variety of directors,” Hanks said. “It’s like making 13 independent films that interconnect and dovetail with one another rather than play as one huge continuation. … You will be able to pick up any one of the films in video form, pop it in the VCR and won’t need to have seen the previous episodes to understand what’s going on.” Series kickoff hour lensed by Hanks lays the groundwork for the Apollo project, detailing the barnstorming that preceded the space program in the early 1960s. Each of the subsequent 11 films deal in some fashion with each of the missions. The finale, penned by Hanks, examines what the Soviet Union was doing during the Apollo years. In dramatizing the entire Apollo story for the first time, project will include films that focus on the tragic launch-pad fire that claimed the lives of the first three Apollo astronauts, the journey of the Apollo 8 crew as the first humans to orbit the moon, and the momentous lunar descent of Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Some episodes of “From the Earth to the Moon” will follow an entire mission; others will zero in on some smaller aspect, for example, a single story or character – such as the landing, or the astronauts’ wives, or the scientists behind the missions, or the NASA press corps. The project’s estimated $50 million budget makes it easily the biggest original programming venture in HBO history. It also dwarfs the commitment made to any cable film or miniseries, but is far below the ranking record for an original TV project: the $110 million shelled out for ABC’s “War & Remembrance,” the 1988 sequel to “The Winds of War.” Cost merited HBO’s original programming prexy Chris Albrecht confirmed the $50 million figure as an unofficial approximation, but said Monday the project is sufficiently spectacular to merit its unprecedented expense. “From the time that (Hanks) pitched this to us, we’ve felt it was something that we not only want to be involved with, but potentially one of the finest things ever done in television,” Albrecht said. “That’s what we’re striving for.” Albrecht also stressed the potential “lasting educational value” of “From the Earth to the Moon” in an age when “a lot of young people don’t even realize we ever went to the moon, much less all of the things that had to happen to accomplish that. … It’s really the last great American success story.” Grazer said the genesis of the series came while making “Apollo 13″ when the filmmakers were frustrated by the inability to fully explore the human aspects of the space drama in a two-hour movie.