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Review: Above and Beyond

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Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow
Directed by Rory Kennedy
Discovery, 2018
90 minutes

Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow
by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Feiwel & Friends, 2018
hardcover, 160 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-250-30846-7

A challenge for any author, filmmaker, or other documentarian is condensing and summarizing historical events into a manageable volume, such as a 300-page book or a two-hour film. That’s true for NASA as well: telling the story of the agency’s first 60 years, including its triumphs and tragedies, is a difficult task in terms of figuring out what to emphasize and what to leave out.

“What is exploration if not an act of faith and vision, for we often do not know what benefits await us.”

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy, niece of the late president, offers her take on the agency’s past, and potential future, in Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow. In an hour and a half, she attempts to summarize the highs and lows of NASA over the past six decades, with a not-so-subtle suggestion that the study of the Earth should be as important part of the agency’s future as any exploration of the universe beyond Earth.

“Human beings, more than any other species, are driven by wonder, by curiosity, by a deep need for answers,” Kennedy, who is also the film’s narrator, says in an early scene after clips of her uncle’s 1962 speech at Rice University. “What is exploration if not an act of faith and vision, for we often do not know what benefits await us.” It’s a bit trite, but it does offer a kernel of wisdom. Indeed, one of the challenges in justifying space exploration has been the difficulty in articulating its benefits, leaving advocates to fall back on less satisfying rationales like inspiration and spinoff technologies.

Over the course of 90 minutes the film explores different aspects of the theme of space exploration, from the landing of Curiosity on Mars (which opens the film) through various aspects of human and robotic spaceflight to the study of the Earth. The documentary doesn’t follow an obvious chronological or thematic order: over the course of several minutes it goes from comparative planetology—how studies of Venus and Mars have informed our understanding of the Earth—to the development of the International Space Station to the Columbia accident. (Interestingly, both shuttle accidents are treated as tangents to other topics: Columbia is discussed in the context of its effect on ISS, while Challenger is mentioned as part of the runup to the launch and later repair of Hubble.)

There’s not much about the future of NASA—its journey to tomorrow—in the film except at the end. And while Kennedy supports studies of the universe and human exploration beyond Earth, she has a different prime mission in mind for NASA, informed by what it has achieved in the last six decades.

“The Earth science data NASA has gathered over the decades—factual, comprehensive, and deeply concerning—shows that the world we know is in jeopardy,” she said near the end of the documentary, echoing the words of her uncle. “Sixty years ago, our goal was to put a man on the Moon. Today, we face a new, and even greater, challenge: to protect our planet. It is a challenge that we need to accept, one we cannot postpone, and for the sake of life on Earth, one we must simply win.”

She reiterated that during a preview of the documentary last month on Capitol Hill. “We travel out into space to learn more about Earth, about our home planet. That is NASA’s core mission,” she said, citing NASA’s fleet of Earth science missions. “The satellite measurements are facts, and they leave no doubt that our planet is warming at a rapidly accelerating rate, and that this warming is due to human-induced carbon emissions.”

“We travel out into space to learn more about Earth, about our home planet. That is NASA’s core mission,” Kennedy said.

She made those comments, subversively enough, in a hearing room of the House Science Committee, whose Republican leadership either has been skeptical of humanity’s role in climate change or has argued that NASA should deemphasize its role in Earth science and focus instead on space exploration. The committee’s retiring chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced Kennedy, didn’t comment publicly on those statements, instead calling the documentary “inspirational.”

The film has a companion book of the same title, intended for students (the publisher says ages 9 to 11, but could still be useful for somewhat older audiences as well.) The book covers some of the same material as the documentary, but some additional material as well, such as highlighting the roles women and minorities played for NASA throughout its history. With its frequent use of sidebars and “fun facts,” it’s clear it’s intended for younger audiences with short attention spans.

Above and Beyond, which premiered on the Discovery Channel in the US over the weekend and is available via video on demand, is a good overview of the history of NASA, although the film has a feel of something that was completed a while back. In its discussion of the future, the documentary mentions plans for humans to go to Mars, but nothing about the return to the Moon that has become the near- to medium-term goal of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in the last year. The film interviews Robert Lightfoot, identified as NASA’s acting administrator, who retired from the agency nearly six months ago, as well as Earth scientist and former astronaut Piers Sellers, who passed away nearly a year ago.

For those already familiar with NASA’s history, Above and Beyond won’t offer much in the way of new perspectives on the agency, only perhaps a new anecdote or two. It does offer a reminder of the complexities of describing both what the agency has accomplished in the last 60 years, and what it should accomplish in the next 60.

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