This year, NASA commemorates its 60th anniversary as a government agency of the United States. Perhaps that’s why we are seeing an influx of films with subject matter that delves into space exploration and discovery. With Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” hitting theaters next week, and Hulu’s “The First” gaining a strong following, we can now add Rory Kennedy’s impressive documentary, “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow,” to the list of must-see celestial-themed films.
Kennedy, an Academy Award-nominated (“Last Days in Vietnam,” 2014) and Emmy-winning (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” 2007) filmmaker, is the daughter of the great Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy (the latter of which is the subject of her 2012 doc, “Ethel”). Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA in 1958, while Kennedy’s uncle, former President John F. Kennedy, took the program to the next level. In 1961, Kennedy declared that the United States would achieve a successful moon landing by the end of the 1960s. “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” begins with NASA landing the rover on Mars before taking us back to Kennedy’s famous speech about why it was important to explore our galaxy, and continue to push forward with determination.
The film shows how at its humble beginning, the American people saw NASA and the space race as a competition to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Thanks to interviews with NASA directors, historians, and chief scientists, as well as acclaimed astronauts from Apollo, Gemini, and ISS missions (including Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong), we are taught that it was, instead, a journey of exploration, much like the European trailblazers who sailed the seas centuries before in search of discovery.
While we achieved JFK’s vision and conquered the Soviets with Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, NASA was just getting started. The organization began to set their sights on a bigger prize, and worked to perfect our technology to study our neighboring planets in great detail.
“Above and Beyond” furthers that message as it shows us that NASA was more than just about space exploration and gazing up at the stars. Beyond their foundational endeavors, NASA has done remarkable work aiming its focus back down to Earth, collecting data using an ample circuitry of satellites which measure the well-being of our planet. Kennedy’s deeply concerning narrative extends into the Earth science research program that NASA created in the 1980s. Their experimentation in this regard is perhaps what has been under the radar, as most people think of NASA purely for its prowess with space shuttles and interstellar surveys.
NASA, however, has used a great deal of their capacity to study how quickly our world is altering, and analyze changes in temperature as our polar ice caps melt and the hole in our ozone layer widens. The agency has prevented further destruction to the latter concern thanks in large part to their monitoring of our planet, as 19 satellites remain in orbit, studying the Earth and measuring the ice, rainfall, and other weather patterns. They work hard to study the bleaching and death of 30% of our coral reefs caused by the ocean’s rise in temperature. As we learn more about the planets closest to us, Mars and Venus, we discover that our world’s future might end up somewhere in between the fate of these two spheres, both thought to at one time be capable of inhabiting living organisms.
From the high marks of the Apollo program to the low points of the Challenger tragedy, “Above and Beyond” provides an intimate perspective of the risks we have taken for the greater good of space exploration and the livelihood of our planet. We see the value the organization has provided, and the challenges they have faced to deliver upon JFK’s vision and promise. We see the ups and downs of the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, which was at first thought to be a billion-dollar blunder. The breathtaking and spectacular images of the cosmos delivered by Hubble from hundreds of millions of light years away are awe-inspiring and provide insight into our own creation and existence – that we, too, were formed from an explosion of gas and dust.
As NASA looks to probe deeper into space using the International Space Station (ISS), we find ourselves uniting with other nations and working together despite our differences to move humanity toward whatever mysteries lie beyond our explorations.
“Above and Beyond” starts as a film about the proud history and significant importance of NASA, but the doc quickly becomes an allegory about protecting our planet, and the fact (yes, fact) that global warming is occurring. As mankind searches for answers, NASA is looking to a future of colonizing distant planets. We realize that if change doesn’t take place soon on Earth, we may find ourselves on a planet that, like Mars and Venus, is no longer capable of life. And then what has always been an act of exploration may instead become a necessity for survival.