Monday, July 20, is Space Exploration Day, the 46th anniversary of what might be the greatest scientific triumph in the history of humankind: landing a man on the surface of the moon.
It’s an accomplishment that’s the pinnacle of human achievement in many ways. It represented a near-unimaginable technological feat: for example, the computers on the spacecraft that brought Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back were nowhere near as powerful as the average cell phone that we carry around with us today. It was a zenith of human exploration, certainly on par with the early Vikings and Christopher Columbus voyaging across the Atlantic and discovering the New World.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it was a mission that galvanized a nation that was undergoing dramatic change and mired in social chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country worked on elements of the Apollo mission, from the seamstresses who helped assemble multi-layered space suits to the engineers who designed and built components for the lunar module. And on that July night, the entire nation was glued to the television, watching in awe as Armstrong took that one small step.
Here are three movies and a book that will help you celebrate Space Exploration Day and remind you of the commitment and heroism of the countless men and women who have dedicated their lives to exploring humankind’s final frontier.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling work is not just a chronicle of the early days of the American space program. It also tells the story of the first Americans to rocket into space, whose striking personalities are as fascinating as the fits and starts NASA experienced while trying to get the program off the launch pad. The Right Stuff shows that the Mercury Seven were as human as they were heroic, and the film portrays them against the backdrop of both a nation that turned them into instant celebrities and a mission that was fraught with mortal danger.
Apollo 13 (1995)
It says something about a movie that can keep you on the edge of your seat when you know exactly how it’s going to turn out. Apollo 13 derives its suspense from putting you inside the crippled spacecraft with its imperiled astronauts; within NASA’s mission control, where technicians and engineers desperately race to figure out how to get them home; and in the astronauts’ homes, where the their wives and families watch helplessly as this true-to-life drama unfolds. A perfect cast (led by Tom Hanks), an expert director (Ron Howard) and seamless special effects make for a movie that can be watched over and over again.
OK, so this one is complete fiction, but it’s still important for several reasons. The movie emphatically reminds us that space, even in today’s age of relatively routine space travel, can be a frightening, deadly place. The film gives us glimpses into more modern space vessels, including a space shuttle, the International Space Station, and a Russian Soyuz capsule. It’s a wonderfully crafted film, one that opens with a stunning 13-minute single-sequence that begins with routine work on a shuttle and ends with two astronauts stranded in space. Finally, the movie’s hero is a woman, one who personifies the resourcefulness, courage and determination of all who have flown into space, and whose appearance here may be a salute to all the intrepid women who have donned a space suit and rocketed into the cosmos.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield (Back Bay Books, 2015)
Astronaut Chris Hadfield has spent more than 4,000 hours in space, and during that time he had adventures ranging from clinging to the side of an orbiting spacecraft while he was temporarily blinded to having to break into a space station with a pocketknife. Here, he takes readers through his years of training and time in space in order to share his unique insights on how to make the impossible possible here on Earth.