NASA and Hollywood

July 20, 2011 in Snips

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at 6am EST on the 21st of July, it will mark the end of an era for NASA. Perhaps NASA’s greatest victory is its success at having touched the hopes and dreams of entire generations through five decades of human space exploration. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the movies that filmmakers have produced celebrating space as the pinnacle of human achievement. To commemorate the end of an age for NASA, Centives decided to look at the relationship between the space agency and the movie industry that has been influenced by it the most.

NASA Considers Reality TV

At the turn of the century NASA struck a deal with a media marketing company, to reinvigorate public interest in space exploration. One of the ideas that the company presented was a reality TV show where the final contestant would win a free trip to the International Space Station. The show, which was no doubt inspired by the success of the inaugural season of Survivor that year, would be forced to send the winning contestant on-board a Russian space craft as it is against United States’ laws for civilians to use the space shuttle. But once the winner had left earth’s orbit they would be free to dock with the International Space Station. On the 21st of September 2000, The New York Times reported that “Executives at all of the networks involved said they had been told that NASA would be participating in the program.” Yet it seems that Dreamtime, the company behind the deal, had overstepped their authority. NASA issued a hasty press release the next day clarifying that it was not something that would happen “in the immediate future” but did admit that they might “look into such a trip” at some distant point in time.

Evidence of a Cover Up?

The conspiracy theory arguing that the moon landings were faked has been thoroughly debunked. That didn’t stop famed director Arthur C. Clarke from having his fun when he found out that he was one of the (many) directors rumoured to have overseen the creation of the hoax. When he discovered what the tabloids were saying he sent NASA a humorous letter that read:

“Dear Sir, on checking my records, I see that I have never received payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”

Clarke later decided that the sheer number of people who believed that it was a conspiracy suggested a fundamental failure in the American education system. To this day conspiracy theorists point to his letter as evidence for the hoax.

NASA’s Armageddon

NASA requires people in their management training program to watch 1998 thriller Armageddon. The movie, about a group of ocean drillers who are sent up on a NASA space shuttle to destroy an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, stars Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. (Spoiler alert: They are successful. France is not.) Perhaps surprisingly, the movie is not used to inspire management about the deep responsibility embedded within the agency. Rather, it is used to point out the popular misconceptions that people have about space. In a movie that runs for 150 minutes, there are 168 distinct things that are shown in the film which are impossible in space.

Movie Posters

In 2008 NASA started releasing posters inspired by popular movies to advertise their missions to space. The posters parody several films including Star Trek, Ocean’s 11, and, of course, Armageddon.

Helping the Hand that Feeds

Of course, it hasn’t always been a case of Hollywood using NASA for ideas and inspiration. NASA is equally happy to use the expertise underpinning Hollywood’s fantasy making machine. In the past they’ve used the same specialists who restored film classic Casablanca, to help recover some of the lost footage from the original Apollo landing. And when NASA required skilled people to pilot helicopters to catch a plummeting space probe, who else could they turn to but the best stunt pilots that Hollywood had to offer? Although perhaps they should have remembered that the dreams that Hollywood paints are just that – dreams. The stunt pilots failed to catch the probe after a malfunction prevented the spacecraft’s parachute from deploying.

The Bollywood Connection

NASA receives over 20 requests a year from film makers who want to shoot movies using NASA’s facilities. American icons such as Clint Eastwood have filmed at the space centre and movies including Moonraker and Transformers have cooperated closely with the space agency. It is clear why NASA is generally happy to comply as these films often depict the organization in a positive and heroic light. Yet in 2004 NASA demonstrated that its capability to inspire is not limited to the United States. The agency allowed an Indian film crew to film the Hindi movie Swades at the Kennedy Space Centre. The film, starring Shahrukh Khan, arguably India’s greatest actor, was a story about an Indian who decides to leave his lucrative career at NASA to go back home and help his village community. It was a big hit and may have inspired a generation of Indians to expand their own space program.

A New Beginning?

The USA is not out of the space race. While the venerable Space Shuttle will soon be retired and displayed in museums across the country, this is simply the start of a new and exciting era for the agency. Contrary to popular perception, under Barack Obama’s new space policy NASA’s budget is set to increase until at least 2015. The space agency will continue to send probes to distant planets. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of NASA’s future is the introduction of the private sector into the exploration of space. With the use of corporate developed spaceships the agency intends to send humans to Mars by 2030. This is a strategy that has never before been tried, but by now NASA should be used to challenging the conventional order and the limits of human possibility. Hollywood take note: this is the start of something new.