Space — the final frontier — has always filled humanity with awe and wonder. What exists out there among the stars? Can humanity chart a course through the cosmos? These questions still drive astronauts and scientists, today.
The space race started in 1955 with the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. What followed was decades of the US and the USSR trying to best one another in the cold vacuum of the vast blackness beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA was born, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked the surface of the Moon, and now we have lunar rovers on the surface of Mars while space is filled with satellites of all varieties and the International Space Station.
It all began with someone looking up into the stars and asking, “What if humanity could be up there?” Below lies a list of documentaries about those who dared to answer that question and the ways with which they did so.
The late Toni Myers (who died last month) will always be known for the IMAX documentary experiences she crafted about space, space travel, and the human cost of such lofty endeavors. Hubble is one of her most fascinating works in that it chronicles the trials and tribulations of seven astronauts whose job it is to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. The film offers viewers a detailed look at daring exploits from the launch into space to watching these highly skilled men and women maneuver in zero gravity as they fix the hyper-powerful instrument.
Leonardo DiCaprio‘s narration imbues the film with a further sense of wonder that is palpable between all participants in the documentary — the subjects, the viewer, the creator, and the narrator. Hubble is a one of a kind experience that will both humble you and fill you with a sense of wonder for what a future amongst the stars could hold. Also, there is a zero-gravity taco making scene! What could be better than that?
The Mars Generation (2017)
The Mars Generation is a Netflix documentary about teen-aged potential astronauts who want to prove that a human voyage to Mars is very plausible. The film is wholly focused on the human aspect of space travel, as space is never traveled to but is always there. Its presence looms over the US Space Camp and every inhabitant therein. Space is always the nexus of every conversation, of every training operation. Furthermore, Mars always looms on the horizon. If the Moon was just a stepping stone, then Mars is the next great destination.
The film is at times hopeful, but it remains grounded in reality. Space travel is a monolith of headaches, bureaucracy, funding, and vying for support. These children may have dreams of soaring amongst the stars and stepping foot onto the surface of Mars, but their dreams will never be a reality unless someone (or someones) in a position of power matches the youths’ optimism with funding and purpose.
The Last Man on the Moon (2016)
The Last Man on the Moon is wholly focused on Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, from his early days as a confident naval aviator to his nexus-point when he lays his feet on the Moon in December 1972. Cernan has been to space three times, with Gemini IX in 1966, Apollo 10 in 1969, and Apollo 17 in 1972. It is with the latter mission that the film is concerned. He was the last man to step foot on the lunar surface.
As a documentary about space travel, it chooses to focus on what Cernan’s time spent as an astronaut afforded him as a human being and the ripple effects it had on his life. Due to his time away, both in training and in space, he rarely saw his daughter, and his marriage folded in on itself. Yet, The Last Man on the Moon never plays these moments for emotional shock value; they are just facts, as much as the fact that no one has stepped on the Moon since 1972. The use of archival footage and Cernan guiding the doc through his presence and his voice affords the film a singular humane look at what it means to travel into space.
Space Station 3D (2002)
Once again, an IMAX documentary experience directed by Toni Myers graces this list (spoilers: it won’t be the last). Space Station 3D is a dizzying view of life in space. Its focus is on the International Space Station and those who inhabit it. Once again, it is a human tale where humanity — without the progress of science — would not be able to exist. We view the inhabitants of the ISS as if they are tenants in an apartment complex. Yet, it just so happens that their living quarters are far from the stability of Earth.
Many words are spoken, many faces are shown, Tom Cruise‘s narration guides the entire film, but it is the moments of speechlessness that enraptures the viewer. Peering out into the dark swirling void of space is a revelatory experience. Yes, there may be an International Space Station floating amongst the stars, but what could (and should) come next?
The Year of Pluto (2015)
The Year of Pluto is a documentary that is intimately focused on the hard science and math that goes into safely and successfully traversing space. The film is focused on the New Horizons mission, which just so happens to be the first NASA mission to the Kuiper Belt, a large icy area full of small objects that lies just beyond the orbit of Neptune. The New Horizons spacecraft was built to make such a hard and time-consuming journey, and the film is focused on how that spacecraft works and what things are like in the region that Pluto calls home.
As a documentary, The Year of Pluto is chock-full of computer-generated images, schematics, and talking head interviews that highlight just how much and how little we know about the Kuiper Belt. It is a very scientific film in that it is quite dry and filled with dense terminology, but it is quite compelling nonetheless. If only to be an avenue with which we can view how much thought, hypothesis crafting and testing, and ingenuity goes into space travel.
For All Mankind (1989)
Al Reinert‘s For All Mankind is one of the most important documentaries about space travel, ever. Period. Reiner viewed all of the footage from every Apollo mission and set out to compile the most detailed and expansive film about NASA’s Apollo program, and for the most part, he succeeded. The film consists solely of archival footage, and there are no dry talking head interviews, digital recreations, or anything of the like; instead, there is just raw humanity and awe as one astronaut can be heard stating that “This is 2001 type stuff.” That reaction is exactly how the audience feels. Somehow this is all real, all of this happens, and all of this happened at a time when we were far less technologically savvy than we are today.
For All Mankind captures a snapshot of America when the nation had one united cause: to soar higher and farther into the stars. The astronauts of the film are calm and collected as if they know the sheer importance of their endeavors and are deeply ready for them. It is poignant, hopeful, and its sense of nostalgia over NASA’s heyday is both inspiring and troubled — NASA has had its systemic issues and it would have been nice to see the film tackle that. But as it exists, For All Mankind begs us to never stop looking towards the cosmos.
The Space Movie (1979)
Tony Palmer‘s The Space Movie is a product of its time. It is a zany, off-kilter, and often vapid look at space travel. But it is beautiful, and through its beauty, it becomes moving. As a documentary, it feels like a concert film more than a scientific, fact-based endeavor. It is comprised of stock footage, and that stock footage is brought to life through both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The use of non-diegetic sound, specifically, is where The Space Movie finds its identity.
The Space Movie is a film propelled by music and the energy of that music. If looked at as a concert film, its crowd is the stars and the band on stage is the brave folks who pursued their dreams and aspirations into space. Film, when stripped bare, is a visual medium made up of still images that grant the illusion of motion. The Space Movie wants to be nothing more than a visual spectacle, and through it, space is shown at its grandest and most played-up. Musical synthesizers may have never accompanied humanity into space, but humans accompanied one another into space and there is some triumph in that.
Footprints on the Moon: Apollo 11 (1969)
Bill Gibson‘s Footprints on the Moon: Apollo 11 was the first feature-length documentary about the Apollo 11 mission, as it was compiled and released a mere two months after the mission itself. The film consists of footage from Cape Kennedy, Houston’s Space Center, and the Apollo 11 shuttle itself. Granted, said footage is imagery that most people have seen before, but that does not belittle the fact of just how significant this documentary is. It was released shortly after the actual mission and acted as an endcap — a final tipping of the hat –to just how important and revelatory the Apollo 11 mission was. It was more than just one giant leap for mankind, and Footprints on the Moon: Apollo 11 knows that. It was a major step for human optimism, for what the future could hold.
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
David Sington‘s In the Shadow of the Moon is a documentarian study on what the astronauts of the Apollo missions went through, in their own words. The astronaut interviews themselves are inspiring, funny, and occasionally moving. When their words become interspersed with the footage of what they accomplished, they take on a whole new and far deeper meaning. The men speak of these acts as if it was just their job, that all they did was their due diligence, but these astronauts were paramount in shifting the paradigm of what humanity can strive for.
In the Shadow of the Moon begs us to never stop hoping, to never stop seeking a better world, and to continue trying to achieve the impossible. Today, its underlying themes are still quite relevant and, sadly, too colored by optimism. Wishful thinking does not always win the day. People died on the trails before these Apollo missions and it was only through their loss that greatness was achieved. Hardships and despair can and will arise, but In the Shadow of the Moon compels the viewer to see beyond what trials present themselves today and to strive for a better tomorrow.
Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D
Few cinematic experiences will ever compare to Mark Cowen‘s Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D. It is less of a documentary and more of an act of visual spectacle that aims to recreate, for filmgoers, what it must be like to walk on the moon. While some viewers may be left annoyed at just how patriotic it is, the film is meant for the young child, the being whose vision of reality has yet to be skewed by the actual realities of reality, and for those viewers, this film begs them to aspire. It wants to show them that the feeling of grandeur and awe that this film makes them feel can be felt and captured outside of the filmgoing experience. In that, it is more of an experience than it is cinema. It happens to the viewer rather than playing out in front of them.
Tom Hanks co-wrote and produced the film, and through this, his unabashed love for the cosmos is imbued in every ounce of Magnificent Desolation. In that sense, it is subjective from the start, but it also asks the viewer to imbue the film with their own perceived essence in order for the wonders locked within the experience to manifest themselves in a subjective existence.
A Beautiful Planet (2016)
Of course, the final documentary on this list was also made by Toni Myers. Her space-centric IMAX documentary experiences are wholly engrossing and rich with visual and detailed splendor. A Beautiful Planet is as much about space as it is about Earth, as viewed from space (see also: Myers and Ben Burtt’s Blue Planet). Through this view, its visual splendor and grandiose nature reign supreme. The International Space Station is once again the focal point of the cinematic experience, but what is most important is what happens and what is seen beyond the airlocked windows of the ISS. Its storytelling is on a scope so large that viewing the Earth seems quaint compared to what the universe has to offer, and through the film being produced in conjunction with NASA, Myers is afforded the opportunity to capture some of the most beautiful images of Earth and space.
Jennifer Lawrence narrates the film, and through her voiceover, the film finds an emotional grounding. Yet, the silence and endless nature of space say multitudes more than any spoken word could. Viewing the ISS against the backdrop of space just shows how unimportant humanity is in the greater lens of the universe. But that does not mean that beauty cannot be found in such unimportance. Earth and the ISS itself stand out as endlessly beautiful objects that the film captures in a way that could never be recreated, either in reality or with digital effects.
Want to come back down to Earth? Check out our list of the seven best documentaries about our planet.