Science Fact: Hollywood and Space Exploration


Last week I re-watched Apollo 13 with my friend who had never seen it. When Apollo 13 came out in 1995, my parents were happy to take their daughter to see it in the theater. I mean when I was still writing letters to Santa Claus, one of the things I wanted more than anything* was to go to space camp in Florida. That was the epitome of coolness. I mean, what could be more awesome than being near Cape Canaveral rubbing elbows with astronauts (especially the female ones, so I could gush about how they were an inspiration. Though more likely I would have squeaked and hid behind the nearest potted plant)? Answer: Nothing. However, space camp was very expensive, and I don’t begrudge my parents not sending me, though I never lost my love of space exploration.

It’s funny, because as a historian, I frequently get asked if I would travel back in time to the 13th century. The answer, unless the scenario has a 115% chance of return, is a resounding no. I would travel back to July 20, 1969, so that I could watch the world witness Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon for the first time. We’ve grown up knowing Armstrong’s famous first words as he hopped awkwardly down Eagle’s ladder, but I wonder how people felt when they heard the first sentence to be uttered from 384,400 km (238,900 miles) away.

Science fiction often dominates our understanding the universe beyond out own planet; however, what about science fact? There are three films that I believe are both labors of love by people who still have a child-like wonder about space exploration. Namely, and in order of how they should be watched: The Right Stuff, From the Earth to the Moon, and Apollo 13.

The Right Stuff covers the early days of the Space program and the Mercury Seven.

It begins with the lives of test pilots and the breaking of the sound barrier. The movie does have inaccuracies  such as the ‘blowing the hatch too early’ kerfuffle, but I don’t think that it lessens the importance of it as an introduction to NASA’s early days of manned missions. This film contrasts the lives of the individuals with a burgeoning and dangerous missions they were being asked to partake in. There are some excellent moments, like when one of the rockets collapses and blows up on the launch pad, that truly articulates how unknown space exploration was to us.

From the Earth to the Moon was shown by HBO in 1998 and covers the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Tom Hanks was the driving force behind From the Earth to the Moon, but can anyone think of a better person to head such a project? His love for the space program ensured that he strove to produce two works (I’m including Apollo 13) that were not only as true to the events portrayed as possible, but also brilliant pieces of cinema. I remember watching the second episode “Apollo One,” and being devastated by the tragic death of the Apollo One astronauts, which makes the scene when James Lovell’s son asks about the Apollo One disaster that much more poignant.

All three of these films, when taken together, bring to life the complex reality of the space program, its history, and in the wake of the end of the shuttle program, what we have learned from it. People always joke about how much money NASA spent on space pens when they could have used pencils or the scientific irrelevance of going to the Moon, but what these men and women did has left an indelible mark on how we understand ourselves and our place in this vast, expanding universe.

As a follow up to these films, if you’re suddenly craving some sci-fi Moon-related drama, check out Moon.

I would advise against watching them in quick succession, because it is stressful and emotional. It also (sadly) made me realize I probably could not handle being in space. Unless I was on the Enterprise, there is way more leg room.

*well aside from meeting the entire cast of Star Trek: TNG, in uniform (naturally I’d be in that odd mustard shade, because while Picard was awesome, I always liked Geordi LaForge). My mother reminds me of this every year at Christmas, then brings out the crayon and construction paper letter. I used to be embarrassed by it, but it is the earliest tangible evidence of my nerdiness, and like a star report card this too deserves a place of honor.


2 Responses to “Science Fact: Hollywood and Space Exploration”

  1. Hi there, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i
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    • 2 sassociety

      Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest. I just sort through them. Spam is a persistent little bastard. Sorry.

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