Were we really promised jetpacks? Does it matter, though, when, as Rory Kennedy’s new documentary “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” makes clear, we’ve gotten so much exploratory might and scientific illumination from 60 years of that iconic American institution?
Getting a small theatrical release before it airs on the Discovery Channel, timed to NASA’s 60th anniversary, “Above and Beyond” is a slick, engrossing sizzle reel of the agency’s triumphs at turning curiosity about the universe into data about our place in it. After so entertaining a rah-rah lesson in how technology to send us to the moon ultimately let us learn about our own rapidly changing Earth, astronauts and space vehicles can hoard the jetpacks for now. I’ll concede that learning that life on Mars probably existed there billions of years ago (thanks, Curiosity rover) is probably more important.
Using archival footage, interviews and plenty of graphics set to a percolating synth score almost retro-cool in its bloop/bleep-iness, Kennedy, who also narrates, sets about explaining how the call of the unknown that led to the Apollo and space shuttle missions, the Hubble telescope, the International Space Station and today’s multitasking rovers, is still a burning invitation to explore. One that routinely produces incredible answers at the same time it asks even more wild questions about our (supposed?) uniqueness in the universe.
But the movie is also a reminder that NASA is also collecting data about Earth, using its satellites and scientists to map how ice melts and industrial-triggered carbon dioxide inequities are forcing us to look at not just the habitability of other planets, but our own as well.
It’s easy for laypeople and amateur enthusiasts to be sufficiently awed by what NASA has achieved, and “Above and Beyond” relishes any chance it gets to stoke a viewer’s excitement about missions accomplished and mysteries to penetrate. But it’s also charming to see how much Kennedy’s interviewees across the agency’s history — from astronauts Jim Lovell and Mark Kelly to recent NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan and JPL engineer Adam Steltzner, among many others — still exhibit golly-gee delight about their and their colleagues’ work. (The movie doesn’t ignore the costly risks either, including the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, which come in for brief, if sober, reflection in the timeline.) Is “Above and Beyond” a glorified recruitment video? Mostly, but one so smoothly assembled that you may find yourself planning that Jet Propulsion Lab tour or National Air and Space Museum visit sooner rather than later.
When Kennedy made her extraordinary 2014 archival documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” she smartly recognized that it was a dual narrative: retelling the dramatic evacuation from Saigon, while understanding its modern-day parallel to soldiers still in protracted Middle East wars. “Above and Beyond” boasts a similar complementariness, although it’s upfront about it: Sure, NASA has had an amazing 60 years cataloging the beyond, but if we want 60 more, we might want to listen to what these highly trained data-collecting scientists have to say about the colossal effects we’ve had — rising ocean temperatures, for example — on the planet’s atmospheric health.
It makes Kennedy’s use of her own uncle John F.’s famous speech at Rice University in 1962 (“We choose to go to the moon”) like a poignantly repurposed manifesto, in that she’d clearly like us all to view the next big hurdle to tackle (“not because they are easy …”) as more than just reaching Mars but doing something about our home too.
NASA is already partnering with the private sector — Boeing and SpaceX, namely — to turn everyday (wealthy) people into solar system tourists. That’s another window into who we are: Space travel was going to go capitalist eventually. But “Above and Beyond” is primarily about reigniting that collective spark to dream huge, to keep exploring, even if Kennedy’s concurrent purpose is to ask of our still-jetpack-hopeful future: When we’re all able to leave Earth, will it be because we need to?
‘Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow’
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes