NASA is having something of a moment.
“The Martian” debuts this week to huge expectations: starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, the $100-million-plus film highlights not only the ingenuity and pluck of those who would go to the stars, but also the bureaucratic stumbling blocks facing our spacefarers at home.
Without spoiling too much, one of the film’s plot points revolves around NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) being forced to contemplate the bad public relations that would follow images of a dead Mark Watney (Damon) being captured by satellite. The organization’s budget is limited and weeks of bad press could scupper future missions to Mars.
There’s no worry about bad press for NASA when it comes to “The Martian”: a delightfully diverse team of astronauts, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) in space and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on the ground, demonstrate their pluck and smarts by coming together to solve problems and help broker world peace. It’s hard to think of a better advertisement for the beleaguered space agency, which has endured a series of budget cuts in recent years and now must rely on the Russians to get to the International Space Station.
When it comes to “space movies starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain,” I probably prefer 2014’s “Interstellar.” Christopher Nolan’s most recent film is a naked plea for greater investment in the nation’s space program, a theme promulgated most clearly in the movie’s initial teaser trailer. “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible,” Matthew McConaughey’s drawl informs us over images of American derring-do and newscasters driven to tears by our aerial accomplishments. “And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements.”
Something has changed in recent years — but hope is not entirely lost. “Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.” Even the most cynical of viewers will be roused to thoughts of greatness, of accomplishment, of achievement. I myself may have stood on my chair and started chanting “USA!” after seeing that teaser for the first time. (Okay, maybe not, but the impulse was hard to restrain.)
Like “Interstellar,” “Tomorrowland” suggested that our nation’s refusal to prioritize NASA would literally lead to our doom. The movie revolves around a precocious teen who commits acts of industrial sabotage in order to delay the closing of Cape Canaveral. We’ve lost hope thanks to an incessant stream of negativity from the media, and nothing symbolizes that failure to dream like the shuttering of the Space Shuttle’s launching pad.
NASA itself flacked hard for the box office flop. “The new Disney film ‘Tomorrowland’ imagines a world where dreaming about the technology of the future can advance civilization and make Earth a better place,” the agency wrote in May. “We invite you to explore the many ways NASA provides Benefits to You as we keep reaching to tomorrow on Earth and in space, making lives better today.”
Even Mr. Cynicism, Don Draper himself, got a little moon-eyed when thinking about the moon. While discussing the historic lunar landing with his teenaged daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), Don (Jon Hamm) reacted sharply when she suggested the government had no business spending millions on space travel when problems of inequality on Earth remained so dire.
“Do you want your brothers to hear you say that?” Don snapped at Sally after she dropped her teenaged hot take on the Apollo mission’s wastefulness. She quickly apologized and got with the program. Don, a master of the sales pitch, knows as well as anyone that the hopeful symbolism of putting a man on the moon matters much more than cutting a few extra welfare checks every year.
“National prestige is important, even if our current president doesn’t know it,” wrote P.J. O’Rourke in a surprising 2012 plea for a renewed emphasis on space travel. I say “surprising” because one wouldn’t necessarily suspect the right-leaning libertarian curmudgeon of being a closet government space travel enthusiast. But it seems NASA fandom transcends ideology. On what other issue will you see Neil deGrasse Tyson and Newt Gingrich join hands?
Is the movie business’s renewed sense of optimism about our nation’s space program enough to save it from the dustbin of history? Hollywood doesn’t yet dictate how our nation expends its lucre, so maybe not. But it can’t hurt to get voters thinking about our abandonment of the pursuit for excellence above.