Film Review: Fight for Space

Documentary delving into the many missed opportunities to continue manned space exploration after Apollo devolves into pure advocacy for public-private aerospace ventures.
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For those who grew up in the Space Age, space was the place to be, even if only metaphorically for all but the few who would become astronauts. Budding scientists, engineers and others thought they would help shape the future while giving humanity a long-term emergency exit. But that future never happened, and after the final Apollo moonshot in 1972, we never again sent people beyond low Earth orbit. The moon colony and Mars base of science planning went back to be being science fiction.

Explaining how and why that happened is the admirable mission of this documentary by Paul Hildebrandt, a cinematographer making his writer-director-producer debut. And while a great many of us may agree wholeheartedly with its ultimate message that we need to return to manned space exploration, Fight for Space is not an objective, journalistic look at the issue. Hammering home its advocacy with heavy repetition about the inspiration the space race gave young people and the economic benefits that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson keeps pointing out, its soundtrack swells and gets louder and grander as it plods to a conclusion. Ultimately it's a proselytizing tool, ending with a crescendo against an onscreen graphic reading, in all-caps, "SPACE IS OUR FUTURE. FIGHT FOR IT. THE UNIVERSE IS WAITING."

That's a shame, since there are probably 45 to 60 minutes of good historical information and analysis here. Hildebrandt, described as a member of the London-based Institute for Interstellar Studies, gets candid comments from the likes of legendary NASA flight director Gene Kranz, astronauts Jim Lovell and Story Musgrave, various private-industry aerospace engineers and executives, scientists including Tyson, Bill Nye and Michio Kaku, and politicians and staffers, all of whom lay out a history of great hopes and plans, questionable political and bureaucratic decisions, and a maddening malaise by an American people that used to believe in science and exploring new frontiers—that understood why European seafarers pushed out to The New World. Any child of the Space Age will well up in tears when they see a snippet of President Kennedy's 1962 "We choose to go to the moon…" speech.

The great question, even then, has been "What makes space exploration worth paying for?" as the actor E.G. Marshall asks in a vintage clip. Astronaut Musgrave answers that it's philosophical—"it's the human spirit of going out there." Kaku, both literally and figuratively more down-to-earth, argues that without the space program we might not have had the Internet, weather satellites, telecommunications or GPS. Tyson notes plainly that "the reason to explore space is that it can boost our economy. Period. […] Because it changes the culture. People think differently. They think about the future, think about inventing things. They think about making a better tomorrow rather than just surviving the day."

They and others explain that the race to the moon was a wartime, albeit Cold War, push, and so anything went. But after beating the Soviets there, urgency faded. Though the Russians economically still put us and others up in space with a rocket essentially the same as what they used more than half a century ago, we abandoned the Saturn V and concentrated on what was supposed to be the cost-effective, reusable Space Shuttle, which kept us relatively earthbound. President Reagan and the first President Bush were boosters of space exploration, and according to Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, he and fellow Martin Marietta engineer David Baker spearheaded a plan circa 1990 called Mars Direct, designed to send humans to Mars in just eight years. President Clinton, however, scuttled this promising program.

In the following decade, NASA devised what Jeff Greason, founder of Xcor Aerospace, describes as an affordable, feasible blueprint for reaching Mars. But a new NASA administrator arrived in 2004 wanting, instead, "Apollo on steroids." This became the Earth to Moon to Mars program called Constellation. But the second President Bush cut back on the funding for it, and an unenthusiastic President Obama essentially canceled it. Then Congress directed NASA to build the biggest rocket ever and a multipurpose crew vehicle called Orion—but didn't budget for it.

Will we ever again send humans into space, when some Americans living today literally do not know or believe that we ever did? That's an important question the documentary asks, and the whys and wherefores it presents are hugely important for the world to know. If the film had left things at that, it would have been much shorter and much better—since Fight for Space then becomes practically an industrial film for the private-sector space industry, making not even a pretense of journalistic objectivity. I can't express how much it hurts me to say that, since, to paraphrase Kranz, I'm starting to lose the belief that my children will see humans again on the moon. And unless things change, Mars is just pie-in-the-sky. So while this may not be the documentary we want, perhaps it’s the documentary we need.

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