When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon’s surface on Monday 21 July, 1969, he supposedly fluffed his lines: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he said. On returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronaut pointed out that he’d meant to say “That’s one small step for a man”, but to no avail. Of course, if NASA had sent an actor instead, all of this might have been avoided but we’d have lost one of the best lines of the century.
Hollywood’s fascination with space and man’s attempts to travel to infinity and beyond has given actors ample opportunity to practice their moon talk and walks over the years.
As early as 1902, George Melies was directing the silent movie Trip To The Moon, while Fritz Lang followed Metropolis with the 1928 film The Girl In The Moon, remarkable for both its visionary technical detail and its attempts to build an actual space rocket as part of the publicity campaign — unlike Lang’s career, the rocket never took off.
The novels of Jules Verne also provided early inspiration for race to space movies, in particular Rocket To The Moon, but it was only when science fiction became science fact that films were truly able to capture the awesome realities of space travel.
The pioneering Mercury programme of the early 60s (in which America’s first seven astronauts were selected from a pool of 508 test pilots) is thrillingly captured in The Right Stuff Philip Kaufman’s exhilarating 1983 movie based on Tom Wolfe’s book.
The 1970 ordeal of astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, who drifted helplessly in space for 90 hours, is recreated in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and the latter’s star, Tom Hanks, was the driving force behind the award-winning TV series From the Earth to the Moon which looks at the space programmes in the USA and Russia from their infancy to the demise of the Apollo project in the 1970s.
A Love Affair with Astronauts
It’s easy to understand the love affair between Hollywood and the space programme. Writing in 1969 after the successful Apollo 11 mission, sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov compared the NASA astronauts to creations in a teen romance magazine, noting: “Look at the astronauts’ faces: all keen, all incisive, all clean-cut, all handsome. Look at their characters: all noble, all intrepid, all boyishly modest, all winningly good-natured. They are all married, all family men, all church-going.”
No wonder, to an industry that’s business is making films about extraordinary people who live out the fantasies of normal folk, the fearless men from the space programme were the equivalent of super-heroes. And, even better, they were American — it was commonplace for 60s astronauts to be featured on the cover of Time magazine and be voted ‘Man of the Year’.
Tom Hanks, who played Lovell in Apollo 13, is a self-confessed fan of space movie who has admitted he’d be happy to “play any astronaut”. He cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the benchmark by which all other movies in the genre must be judged: “2001 was a huge influence on me because it actually obeyed the laws of physics in its storytelling. It wasn’t just a fake movie in which people pressed a button that said ‘Rocketship go!’ and they went. There was zero gravity and spaceships based on authentic designs.”
The veracity of space movies become one of the genre’s major selling points. The Right Stuff’s desire to look authentic was helped by NASA, which gave the film’s producers 500,000ft of footage, while the makers of Apollo 13 used a specially modified Boeing 707 (nicknamed The Vomit Comet) to recreate the effects of weightlessness for the space scenes. These small steps ensure that the audience, most of whom are unlikely to experience space travel in their lifetime, gets the next best thing: a cheap ticket for an experience that is out-of-this-world.
The genre continues to be explored today with Oscar contender Hidden Figures examining the role played by women of colour working at NASA in the 1960s’.