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NASA Personnel Choose their Favorite Sci-Fi Space Movies

Steve Palace

Who better to ask about space movies than Nasa astronauts? In conversation to promote 20th Century’s Fox’s latest sci-fi odyssey Ad Astra (starring Brad Pitt), they gave an insight into what makes the perfect flick for them.

Some of the results were no surprise. Others however are out of left field, with some less than high profile selections chosen. Here now some Nasa experts weigh in on their favorite space movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1968, was mentioned by Rob Manning, the chief engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He was influenced by the epic production as a boy. Quoted by IndieWire, he said “It looked just right. It matched my vision of what space was going to be like.”

Co-written by eminent sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, the movie was praised for its innovative technical achievement and profound commentary on life beyond our world. Interviewed by the BBC World Service in – coincidentally enough – 2001, Clarke mentioned that “Stanley wanted to do the ‘proverbial good science-fiction movie’.”

2001 Space Odyssey
Scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey. Photo by Matthew J. Cotter CC by 2.0

Not that it was plain sailing at first, as Clarke continues: “I took him to see Things To Come, the H G Wells classic, made in 1936, and I remember Stanley’s reaction: ‘What are you trying to do to me? I’ll never see a movie you recommend again.’”

As for deputy project manager for the NASA Curiosity Rover Steve Lee, for his movies he chose the first big screen outing for Captain Kirk and co – 1979’s Star Trek The Motion Picture. According to Indiewire, he enjoyed the “sense of an optimistic future world” with “humanity united exploring the galaxy”.

There wasn’t a great deal of unity on set of course. The production was a troubled one for various reasons, none of them particularly cosmic in nature. Star Trek The Motion Picture abruptly took the place of a TV revival series, with a tight schedule imposed to get the big budget film made and launched.

Star Trek
Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock and William Shatner as Capt. Kirk

Add a screenplay that wasn’t finished as the cameras rolled, and the movie didn’t so much boldly go as nearly went. As reported in a 2017 Den of Geek piece, director Robert Wise said, “We had a number of injuries. A gigantic set at the climax was made out of lights, panels and plastic forms. Any number of our people fell through it. Finally put up a board to keep score: which departments fell through the most – electricians, actors, artists? One electrician, Tiny, fell and sustained a very serious shock. A grip launched himself to knock Tiny loose from the cable he was holding.”

In spite of chaos behind the scenes and a negative reception, the Motion Picture certainly passes muster at America’s space agency.

Lee went on to praise the end of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar. “Even though the earth wasn’t a great place, eventually they built these wonderful space colonies, and used technology as their way forward,” Lee said, while giving special mention to the use of “time-travel and communication across time as another dimension of profound thinking.”

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who has twice journeyed into outer space, chose Star Wars and The Right Stuff. She said, “I would have to say the most meaningful space-related movie was after I became an astronaut and watched ‘The Right Stuff.’” Philip Kaufman’s 1983 adaptation of a Tom Wolfe story chronicles the first 15 years of the space program, featuring Ed Harris as John Glenn.

Ed Harris
Ed Harris. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC by SA-3.0

The most surprising choice amongst the space-obsessed experts was that of Laura Kerber, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab. She highlighted Titan A.E., an animated effort from 2000. Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore and Ron Perlman were among the talent lending their voices to this post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure.

Quoted by IndieWire, Kerber thought it was “really cool because it explores the idea of how we might restart the world again, and with the idea that you might not have a lovely planet with life already on it to go to…what would you bring with you, in your sleep pod, or your ark, to start life over again? I really enjoyed that movie and the soundtrack, which I listen to all the time as I look at Mars”.

Titan A.E. was directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Bluth worked on An American Tail (1986) and Goldman had previously co-directed 1997’s Anastasia with him. The impressive pedigree of the cast and crew was expected to generate a smash hit. Unfortunately the movie failed to make an impression.

Bluth and Goldman came to the movie during a lengthy pre-production process they weren’t involved with. Speaking to AWN in 2000, Bluth revealed “ Lots of times at a studio, a film is made by committee, and the committee endeavor is not very good. Although they say there were two directors on Titan, I’d say there were twenty. With that many people, you don’t get the best artistic endeavor.”

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One area besides movies where you definitely need a large team is Nasa space exploration. And even though some big screen adventures experience turbulence during blast off, they can inspire future generations of space-faring professionals.