The Final Frontier

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More than four decades have passed since a human first set foot on the Moon.Last Thursday, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth and NASA’s Space Shuttle Program officially closed its doors. A sad day, for sure, but over here at The Exchange, we plan on passing the time between now and private spaceflights by heading to the movies for some fictional space exploration. Except, well, we noticed there are not very many upcoming space exploration films. Is Hollywood finished exploring the “final frontier”?

The answer might be “yes.” Only two films in 2011 feature space, Mars Needs Moms and Apollo 18, but neither film could be classified as a space exploration film. Mars Needs Moms is a 3-D animated film about a kid traveling to Mars after his mom is kidnapped by Martians. The film is less about exploring space and more about space as a cool background for a story. Apollo 18 is a science-fiction thriller based on a fictional Apollo 18 mission to the Moon. It is a space exploration film, but because it is set in 1974, if you want to see some futuristic space technologies and discoveries, you are out of luck.

In fact, if you want a film resembling Contact, Mission to Mars, or Red Planet, you won’t find it in the theaters in 2011. Films like Battle: Los Angeles, Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, Thor, Paul, and Green Lantern are all more concerned with bringing space to Earth (mostly in the form of aliens or superheroes from other planets). What happened to the films that celebrated human travel into space; that explored new territories beyond Earth?

Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration

A lack of space exploration films might be explained by a lack of space exploration. It is not surprising that science inspires science fiction, so what happens when the science dries up? A 2011 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era, found “the agency [NASA] is poorly positioned to take full advantage of the scientific opportunities offered … or to effectively pursue scientific research needed to support the development of advanced human exploration capabilities.” 

Two films in 2000, 'Red Planet' and 'Mission to Mars,' depicted human space exploration on Mars.The report reviewed NASA’s life and physical sciences research program, which could provide crucial information that would allow sustained human space exploration. The authoring committee for the report was “deeply concerned about the current state” of such research. If the science to support human space exploration is in such a miserable state, how can it inspire Hollywood? The astonishment and excitement about human space exploration might have faded along with the funding for NASA’s life and physical sciences program.

Think about it, 500 humans have traveled into space. None have traveled past the Moon’s orbit. Human spaceflight is at a standstill because, as the report explains, NASA’s life and physical sciences research is not currently capable of leading the future of human space exploration. If there are no leaps forward in research, if there are no inspiring new discoveries that redefine what we know is possible, the creative opportunities for storytelling are diminished. There is nothing to spark an idea or story, or push characters into a world beyond our own. 

 The Good News

An artist's depiction of the early universe. Space exploration could answer critical questions about the formation of Earth and other planets.All hope is not lost though. The NAS report recommends research initiatives to enable space exploration, as well as research that is enabled by access to space. Research on the adverse effects of space on human health, for example, would allow prolonged human space exploration missions. Or it could allow the technology to retrieve water from the Moon or Mars, a critical (and cost-saving) ability to supply long-term space missions.

The recommendations themselves sound like creative wellsprings for storytelling. “Architecture-altering systems involving on-orbit depots for cryogenic rocket fuels” or “regenerative fuel cells that can provide lunar surface power for the long eclipse period.” Wow. There are even recommendations on fire-safety systems to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic events (and who doesn’t love a fictional catastrophic event set in space?). 

The report also touches on areas of highest-priority research like behavioral and mental health, plant and microbial biology, and applied physical sciences, all of which are fascinating. So, while we cannot be sure NASA will incorporate the report’s recommendations, we can tell you it’s a surprising resource to inspire the next space exploration film – that will hopefully get those creative brains in Hollywood churning.

Image credits:

Homepage: Pascal Lee

Top right & middle left: NASA Glenn Research Center

Bottom center: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.