A flurry of space movies has fluttered out of Hollywood over the past few years. Generally speaking, movies skew toward the trivial side of the news spectrum — but the new space flicks are a national bellwether. There are good things to come.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted in 1968. It started filming in December 1965, a year into NASA’s Gemini program. Gemini was a proof-of-concept program, for NASA to figure out how to do everything it had to do to land men on the moon. And in 1965, it really did look like we were on our way out into the cosmos. NASA had successfully completed its first long-duration spaceflight, its first orbital rendezvous, its first orbit-adjustment maneuvers, its first spacewalk: four of the major hurdles on the way to the moon. Nineteen sixty-five was also the year of Mariner 4, which took the first-ever close-up photos of Mars. When 2001 came out, we were just a year away from Apollo 11, and people in the Nixon administration would soon be talking about America going to Mars. Kubrick’s movie was a serious look at the adventures yet to come.
Of course there’s plenty of fantasy silliness in 2001, but there’s also a lot of very well thought-out futurism. Beyond Mars is Jupiter, and that’s where 2001 went. At the speed at which space science was progressing in the Sixties, Jupiter-by-2001 was a perfectly realistic goal, and Kubrick’s movie designed a plausible mission to get us there. There was no magic gravity button, there was a gigantic centrifuge. There was no real-time phoning home, because of the 30-light-minute distance between the en route spaceship and Earth (that is, it would take 30 minutes for anything an astronaut said to get to Earth, and 30 minutes for a reply to get back). Menial flight duties were handled by a supercomputer. There was even some amusingly prescient Skype-style video conferencing, and iPad-esque tablets. The film was a peek at a future everyone could see on the horizon, standing (as we all were) on a big pile of space excitement.
NASA paid for the moon landing with congressional appropriations made possible by the memory of JFK and by competition with the Soviets. After the moon landing, JFK’s challenge had been met, and the space race had been won. Politicians felt space excitement waning; fewer and fewer people watched each moon landing after the first. Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were canceled because of budget cuts. Plans for a moon base were shelved. Nascent plans for a manned Venus flyby were shelved. Any thought of going to Mars was suffocated. Instead we got Skylab — a well-meaning but dull space station built using leftover Apollo hardware — and Apollo-Soyuz, an American–Soviet joint mission and PR stunt, which laid the groundwork for the International Space Station. And we got the Space Shuttle, which built the International Space Station and, for years, serviced it.
The Space Shuttle was a remarkable machine; budget cuts kept it from living up to its potential. Even if they hadn’t, the Shuttle would never have gone farther than low Earth orbit — where we’d been since 1962. The Shuttle-era teacher-astronaut program was an attempt to inspire kids the way the moon landing had inspired them, in the way the Shuttle couldn’t, in hopes of creating a groundswell of space enthusiasm. None was forthcoming.
George W. Bush revived plans to go into deep space; his Constellation program, announced in 2004, called for men to return to the moon no later than 2020 and to go deeper into space from there. Democrats scoffed at it (“We have serious challenges here on Earth,” said Nancy Pelosi) and, in 2010, Barack Obama canceled it, replacing a trip back to the moon with nebulous plans to go to Mars, or to an asteroid. He was able to get away with canceling Constellation — despite withering criticism from Neil Armstrong, among others — because there was no particular political reason not to cancel it. In 2011 the Space Shuttle was retired, and not too many people cared. Space was not on the country’s mind.
In 2012, though, things started to change. On August 6, 2012, lots and lots of people followed the first genuinely exciting space mission in years, holding their breath. The Curiosity rover, a mobile-laboratory robot the size of a small car, was scheduled to crash into Mars’s atmosphere going 13,000 mph. A parachute would slow it down to 200 mph, but 200 mph would still be too fast to land, so the rover would drop away from the parachute; retro-rockets would carry it the rest of the way to the ground. But the rockets would kick up a dust cloud, which might harm the rover — so instead of carrying Curiosity all the way to Mars’s surface, the rocket platform would hover 60 feet in the air while a “sky crane” lowered Curiosity the rest of the way to the ground. The entire process would take seven minutes. On August 6, 2012, Mars was 14 light minutes away from Earth — meaning that when NASA, and everyone watching, got word that the landing procedure had begun, it had already been over for seven minutes. Those seven minutes were damned exciting.
They went perfectly, and — suddenly — everyone was talking about space and American space-greatness. And — suddenly — everyone remembered that, since the Shuttle had been retired, NASA had had no way to get our astronauts into space other than by letting the Russians fly them. NASA started telling everyone about SpaceX and the commercial-crew program: Private companies were developing new spaceships to fly our boys out of the atmosphere. SpaceX — led by the charismatic technologist Elon Musk — had flown its new Dragon capsule to the ISS for the first time just two months earlier. It had been an unmanned cargo flight, but never mind: Everyone’s imagination was sparked. Boeing was making a new spaceship too, an Apollo-esque capsule, and a company called Sierra Nevada was developing a mini–space shuttle. And NASA was developing its own new capsule, called “Orion,” along with a new mega-rocket, called the Space Launch System (two surviving pieces of Bush’s Constellation program). “To hell with Putin!” cried more than a few Americans. “We’re going back into space; we’re better than ever!” Meanwhile, Curiosity was sending home gorgeous pictures from the mountains of Mars.
As it turned out, Hollywood had beaten the rest of the U.S. to the punch. Since 2010, director Alfonso Cuarón had been developing a movie called “Gravity,” which would tell the story of a Shuttle astronaut stranded in space, trying to make her way back to Earth. When it came out in 2013, the country was already running a space fever. Cuarón’s riveting cosmodrama — starring Sandra Bullock — nudged it a few degrees higher. After decades of space fantasies like Star Wars and space retrospectives like The Right Stuff, Hollywood was back to taking a serious, big-budget look at the future of space flight.
A year after Gravity — that is, last year — we got director Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, Interstellar, an obsessively physics-conscious movie about leaving the solar system. It’s set in a bleak near-future in which public schools teach kids that the Apollo program was a PR stunt: The hero remarks wistfully that we “used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Maybe that’s how Nolan felt when the Constellation program was canceled. He wouldn’t have been the only one.
In theaters now, we’ve got Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on a novel of the same name by Andy Weir, about an astronaut marooned on Mars. It’s 2001-esque in its careful forethought; don’t be surprised if an eventual Mars mission looks a lot it does in Scott’s movie. And that Mars mission will happen, because for the first time in 40 years, the country is starting to see itself the way it’s shown in the movie: as a science superpower, tough and competent, willing and able, leading the way into the future. It’s a good movie. What makes it even better is that it reflects the changing national mood.
So when you see The Martian, feel free to let your excitement run away with you, like a kid in bed on Christmas Eve. Then, when you get home, send a letter to your congressman asking him to increase NASA’s budget. Remind him that there are lots of places to go in this here solar system, and that we’re going to plant American flags on all of them.
– Mr. Gelernter is a weekly online columnist for National Review and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.