Today is an historic day in world history, and ironically it will probably be some sort of world holiday at some point in the future. But as of 2015, we’re still grappling with the historic consequences of what happened on July 20, 1969. In popular culture, the space program, both the US and the Soviet editions, have been treated with varying degrees of respect by film, comics and other sorts of popular media. There’s no getting around the historic facts (unless you’re a frankly insane person): on this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another heavenly body. The program of which they were a part stretched back a decade and forward several more, but those two astronauts, who got there essentially by the luck of the draw, beyond being selected for that small group of highly skilled individuals, will be remembered as long as there are human civilizations.
Before the 1960s, visions of space exploration in popular culture ranged from eerily prescient (Jules Verne’s 1865 From the Earth to the Moon) to the wide range of fantastic B-movies featuring popcorn-selling sci fi conceits. So much of our popular culture regarding this subject focuses on that short span of time between the end of the World War II and the beginning of the actual space age in the late 1950s that we forget that the romanticism and imagination of space flight stretched back well before that, and wasn’t always focused, as so much of that 1946-1966 American culture was, on military authority and grim, rational, industrial science. The people who kept the romance of space travel alive were, ironically, the Soviets themselves, who were by nature a more romantic and emotional society.
Let’s have a quick look back, on this historic day, on how some of popular culture framed the events of July 20, 1969, and how much that continues to influence modern thinking on the event, though recommending five key texts.
1. Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon, 1865. “There’s hardly a person who hasn’t read his books, at any rate not among the cosmonauts, because Jules Verne was a dreamer, a visionary who saw flights in space. I’d say this flight too was predicted by Jules Verne,” said cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, circling the earth in the Salyut 6 space station in 1978. The Sovets were unabashed science fiction nuts, and modern Russians still are. (For a fascinating Soviet-era look at hard-core science fiction, you can’t miss Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.) Verne anticipated it all in his 1865 novel and its 1870 sequel Around the Moon. He predicted an American expedition to the moon lifting off from Florida, with an explosive shell, circling the moon and splashing down in the ocean, almost a century before these events really took place (on Apollo 8 in December 1968). Verne’s novels may read as quaint in translation, but there’s no getting around the fact that this si brilliant early science fiction, from one of the first undisputed masters of the genre. There is a Classics Illustrated comics adaptation of the story (I own a copy), and it illustrates the story in its Victorian fashion.
2. George Melies, La Voyage dans la Lune, 1902. This was the first film adaptation of the Verne novel, and became one of the most seminal films in the history of cinema itself. Melies used as many special effects and tricks as were available to him at the time (film itself wasn’t even a decade old!) to create a fantastic voyage to parts unknown, told with a great deal of artistry and skill. He portrays the scientists as quasi-wizards, a label that unfortunately sticks to the day in the public unconscious, but he also had a child like wonder and awe at the possibilities not only of the medium, but of the universe itself. That’s essential to making great science fiction, and ironically, science fact.
3. Forbidden Planet, 1957. The great science fiction film of the 1950s wasn’t very scientifically accurate by any means, but it displayed a thoughtfulness and a commitment to genre sorely lacking in many of its contemporaries. It’s interesting enough as a sci-fi re-interpretation ofThe Tempest, and certainly today we can see the “war movie” influence on the cast and characterization. But some of its special effects still manage to dazzle, and there’s no question that this film laid the foundation for just about everything that would follow in the 1960s and beyond.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. What many people miss about this film is that it’s much more than a science fiction film. Stanley Kubrick was doing nothing less than the reinvention of narrative cinema, creating a whole new kind of storytelling based on visuals and action and ideas, rather than characters and relationships. If this film has precedents, they’re in the world of silent cinema or in deep genre exercises like the great westerns. The film isn’t about space as much as it’s about the iconography of space travel. Even so, it stands as a towering achievement. Most of the astronauts who actually flew to the moon in the 1960s knew and loved this film, and why not? It made them into superheroes. But this is really the Mona Lisa of 20th century American cinema (made in England, of course). Its “meaning” will be ever-changing and evolving with the audience reaction, and that’s what makes it truly great art.
5. Apollo 13, 1995. It took almost thirty years for Hollywood to produce another great film about the American space program, and when it did, the achievement was “to scale”. Not satisfied with the shaky and frankly unrealistic special effects of previous films and with the built-in drama of a spacecraft suffering a calamitous malfunction on the way to the moon, director Ron Howard chose to shoot parts of this film in true zero-G, on the aircraft used to train NASA astronauts. Prior to this (and, sadly, even after), filmmakers tended to portray weightlessness in “slow motion”, as if swimming through a thick fluid. This is simply not the way it is: objects move the same speed in zero-G as in one-G, they simply move in three dimensions freely. Apollo 13 therefore comes across, despite its Hollywood ratcheting up of tension and character that is the requisite of that sort of filmmaking, as one of the most accurate space travel films ever made. One wonderful story about this film took place on the Russian space station Mir, in the late 1990s. The station had suffered a series of horrible accidents and the crew, who, in that post-communist period, were paid for their successes and fined for their failures, were horribly demoralized. Visiting British-American astronaut Mike Foale took his two Russian colleagues aside one evening during this difficult period, where the world was making fun of their country and their space program, and showed them Apollo 13 on his laptop, translating the dialogue from English to Russian on the fly. As the three astronauts floated there, watching a film about a much more life-threatening space emergency than the one they were facing, the Russians took great heart. Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev was, in particular, moved by the film, later calling it “the best of the best”. The crew were especially touched when the real Apollo 13 commander, Jim Lovell, emailed them to wish them well. This was one of those moments when space travel, popular culture and international relations all combined in one great gesture.
We have lots to anticipate today with regards to space exploration. The new Orion spacecraft promises to once again open up the solar system to human exploration. And back on the ground, we have a potentially great new science fiction film on the way from Sir Ridley Scott in the form of his adaptation of The Martian, a story that’s very much about the reality of scientific survival, set in the near future.
Popular culture and scientific reality have merged many times (I didn’t even mention my guilty pleasure space film, Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys from 2000), and that’s not likely to change, nor should it. In a world increasingly without unknown spaces, space presents itself to those of a curious and scientific mind. It beckons, just as the late great Omar Sharif was beckoned by Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. We all remember the scene. Lawrence takes Sharif’s character (Sharif Ali) by the shoulders and points across the desert to the port of Aqaba, and says, “Aqaba is over there. It’s just a matter of going.”
Mars is “over there”, too. As is the rest of the universe.