By Bert Ulrich
We do feel lucky! - NASA was honored when Clint Eastwood decided to film Space Cowboys at agency centers.
Space and aeronautics have long been a source of inspiration for the worlds of film and television. One of the first popular films ever made was A Trip to the Moon by French director George Melies in 1902. Melies saw film as a way to bring science-fiction fantasy to audiences and the image of a wrinkled-faced moon with drooping eyes became indelible in the memory of film history. The first film ever to win an academy award was a silent movie with Gary Cooper entitled Wings (1927). Released the year of Lindbergh’s historic journey, Wings chronicled the lives of young pilots. It glorified the concept of early flight with dare-devil stunts and aero acrobatics, which were much in vogue in the 1920s.
Mind bending - 2001: A Space Odyssey amazed audiences worldwide with its dazzling vision of humanity’s future in space.
As the epochal Space Age dawned in the 1950s and 1960s, commercial Hollywood also embraced space travel with visual spectacles. Science fiction became fashionable with films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) involving a space ship landing at the Washington Monument and Forbidden Planet (1956). These films piqued the imaginations of youths and generated popular interest in space exploration. Science fiction television series like Lost in Space (1965-1968) also increased audiences’ curiosity about exploring other worlds. Star Trek (1966-1969) became a cultural phenomenon spawning a whole industry of television programs and films, as the notion of boldly going where no one had gone before struck a responsive chord in a nation whose astronauts were doing just that.
Included in these audiences were a generation of scientists and engineers who would enter the ranks of NASA. NASA planetary scientist Jim Garvin noted that “As an impressionable child, I was enthralled by the sense of magical exploration that Lost in Space and ultimately Star Trek provided me as I came to imagine voyages of discovery to other worlds. I became fascinated by the science possibilities and realities of the uncharted Universe by watching the initial Star Trek series.”
To boldly go - Star Trek inspired a generation's interest in space exploration.
Cross-pollination between NASA and commercial entertainment was inevitable. Unlike broadcast news which would inform the public in a factual manner, the entertainment field could often generate an entirely fresher and more imaginative perspective to the subject of space exploration. One of the most popular science fiction movies of the 1960s, and one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time, was Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Although NASA was not directly involved in the production, the film, nonetheless, explored in great detail human space flight. It depicted a space station influenced by the original concepts of Wernher von Braun, a moon base, and a mission to Jupiter prompted by the discovery on the moon of a mysterious black rectangular monolith.
The aliens are coming - This 1950s classic is one of many movies popularizing the idea that we aren’t alone.
Life imitated art in 1970 when shortly after the premier of Marooned (1969), a film about a daring space rescue of stranded astronauts, the Apollo 13 crew experienced a near disaster en route to the moon, and returned safely to home thanks in part to the heroic work of NASA’s flight team. Ironically, Marilyn Lovell, the wife of Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, had nervously viewed Marooned shortly before her husband’s flight lifted-off.
In the 1970s and 1980s, popular films continued to draw on space exploration and activities for their plot dynamics. James Bond saved the world from a dangerous satellite and flew on a space shuttle in films like Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979). Darth Vader dueled Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (1977). Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET (1982) involved climactic scenes with alien spaceships. In The Right Stuff (1983), Hollywood put a human face on astronauts and test pilots. Based on Tom Wolfe's bestseller, the film explored the heroism and competitiveness of these brave men.
Silver screen tribute - Apollo 13 actors Tom Hanks (James Lovell), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert) and Bill Paxton (Fred Haise) flew in zero-gravity aircraft during the production of Ron Howard’s tribute to NASA’s undefeatable spirit.
During the 1990s and into the new millennium, NASA began participating in the making of Hollywood productions in earnest, similar to the military, which provides technical expertise and location shoots for entertainment oriented projects. Apollo 13 (1995), Ron Howard’s tribute to the most harrowing mission in NASA’s history, was filmed on NASA locations. Because of Apollo 13’s popularity, soon other film productions requested NASA participation like Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998), Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000), and Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars (2000). Television too became the domain of many NASA collaborations ranging from episodes of Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), The West Wing (1999-2006) to the acclaimed HBO docudrama series From the Earth to the Moon produced by Tom Hanks (1998), which introduced a new generation to the incredible experience of lunar exploration.
Mission: Save Earth - Earth The asteroid "near disaster" film Armageddon being filmed at Kennedy Space Center with Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck.
In the arena of documentary filmmaking, NASA participates in over a 100 documentary films a year for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, etc. These programs help share the NASA story in an informative way. Also, IMAX films have been an important medium for recording NASA missions on a five-story screen enhancing the visual experience for audiences. Tom Hanks produced the IMAX film Magnificent Desolation (2005), which celebrated Apollo astronauts. Shot in 3-D, the film allows the viewer to experience Buzz and Neil's walk on the moon as if it were “live.” George Butler’s large format work for Disney, Roving Mars (2006), tells the endearing story of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Toni Myers directed a number of IMAX space-related films and is currently filming a new one, which will document the Hubble Space Telescope. Finally, a documentary directed by David Sington, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, allows several Apollo astronauts to tell in their own powerful words what it meant to have the privilege to be – thus far – among the handful of people to see an alien world up close.
The power of film and television cannot be underestimated. They have been a very effective means of sharing NASA missions and programs with large audiences. Astronauts have been guests on popular talk shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman. Recently, footage from the International Space Station was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show for Earth Day. These programs reach enormous audiences. Some feature films involving NASA participation have even been blockbusters. Armageddon and Apollo 13 are among the top 100 grossing films of all time. In general, NASA’s participation in film and television projects enable the agency to share its programs and missions with as broad an audience as possible.