Moon landing at 50: Five movies that depict reality of American space program

By Ben Hooper

June 28 (UPI) -- Fifty years ago -- July 20, 1969 -- Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, an event that captured the world's attention, as well as Hollywood's imagination.

Movies based around the idea of space travel have been around for decades, dating back to Georges Melies' 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon. But the Apollo 11 mission brought something new to the genre: a quest for realism.


Here are the films cited by NASA scientists and other experts as the most realistic and grounded of the often-fantastic space movie genre.

'The Right Stuff'

Philip Kaufman's 1983 drama, adopted from Tom Wolfe's 1979 book of the same name, tells the story of Project Mercury, the United States' first manned spaceflight. Real-life astronaut Chuck Yeager, who was played in the film by Sam Shepard, acted as a technical consultant during the production to help ensure a sense of realism in the historical drama.


The Right Stuff has been criticized by some, including first U.S. man in space John Glenn (played by Ed Harris), for taking liberties with some events and the personalities behind them. The film has been praised, however, for its attention to technical accuracy and the "atmosphere" of the early space program.

"From an atmospherics perspective, I enjoyed The Right Stuff," NASA's chief historian, Bill Barry told website collectSPACE. "From a history perspective, it is cringe-worthy."

'Hidden Figures'

This 2016 drama, directed by Theodore Melfi and adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows the same real-life events as The Right Stuff, but tells the story from the perspective of mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and the other women of color who served as "human computers" to calculate the flight trajectories for Project Mercury.

Several NASA experts, including Barry, were consulted during the making of Hidden Figures to bring a sense of historical and technical accuracy. Historians, including Shetterly, conceded that the film version took some liberties with characters and events, but was true to the spirit of the real story.


"Like anything based on real-life events, there are some temporal things that, as a historian, are like, 'Eh, that didn't really happen like that.' But I think that the movie is true to the stories of the main characters," Barry said.

'Apollo 13'

Ron Howard's 1995 docudrama, based on Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, enlisted the help of NASA to accurately tell the story of the aborted lunar mission in 1970 in which Lovell and his crew mates were forced to improvise in order to make it back to Earth safely following an on-board explosion.

The actors portraying Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) underwent astronaut training prior to filming and many of the zero-gravity scenes were shot aboard a low-gravity simulating aircraft known as the "vomit comet." Robert Frost, a NASA instructor and flight controller, once cited Apollo 13 as the most accurate movie made about space.


"They did their research and were attentive to details. I've spent a lot of time in the old Apollo FCR and they built an amazing copy of it," Frost wrote in response to a question on Quora in December 2015. "A lot of the dialogue is straight from the mission loop recordings, although the now famous line 'Houston, we have a problem' was actually said as, 'Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here.'"

'First Man'

This 2018 film, directed by Damien Chazelle and based on the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, casts Ryan Gosling as Armstrong in a dramatization of the events leading up to and including his history-making visit to the moon.

The filmmakers enlisted the help of NASA, as well as the Armstrong family, in working to ensure the movie was an accurate reflection of the real events, technically and personally. NASA historians, including Barry, were enlisted to consult on the script and real NASA equipment was used not just for shooting, but to help sound engineers recreate details as minute as the sound of a zipper on an Apollo spacesuit.


"What I like is that they put the Apollo program in the context of the time," Barry told IFLscience of First Man. "If you ask the average American about it today, they'd probably tell you that it was back in the day when America had a great space program, infinite budget and everyone supported the space program -- but none of that was true!

"The popular support for the space program was never above 50 percent during the Apollo program, except the week we landed on the moon," he said.

'The Martian'

Ridley Scott's 2015 science fiction epic based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name, looks forward to the future of space travel rather than dramatizing the events of the past.

The film, which follows fictional astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he works to survive after being stranded on Mars during a 2035 mission, sought input from NASA on topics ranging from the technical specifications of existing equipment to the practicality of the fictional Mars habitats designed for the film.

The Martian has won praise from varied space experts as an accurate depiction of what scientists think the future of space travel will look like.


"My favorite space film is The Martian, because that's where we're going and it really does show just how hard it is," Allison McIntyre, chief of NASA's Space Vehicle Mockup Facility in Houston, told the BBC.

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