— When director Rory Kennedy set out to make a documentary about NASA’s first 60 years of space exploration, she did not expect that her focus would ultimately turn back towards Earth.
Kennedy, the niece of President of John F. Kennedy, has delivered in “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” an informative and engaging look at how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has not only reached out into our solar system (and, as the title suggests, beyond) since 1958, but has also revealed the changing state of our home planet.
“I very much wanted to make a film that celebrated NASA and all of its many accomplishments,” said Kennedy in an interview with collectSPACE. “I grew up in the aftermath of the Apollo program and with the excitement of sending somebody to the moon, what the implications of that was, and the thrill of that effort. And so I was excited to look back and make a film that hopefully reminds people today of all NASA has done and continues to do.”
“It was over the course of doing the interviews for the film and understanding NASA better that I came to really appreciate what it was telling us about the health of this planet,” she said.
“Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” debuts on Saturday (Oct. 13) at 9 p.m. EDT on Discovery Channel and Science Channel. collectSPACE spoke with Kennedy about the film, her personal connections to NASA’s history and what she has come to see as the space agency’s next “moonshot.”
I grew up in a house where we had great admiration for astronauts. John Glenn was good friends with my parents and would come to the house often. He did campaigning for my father, Robert Kennedy, and was somebody who was kind of, excuse the phrasing, in our orbit. And we would watch films about astronauts and celebrate astronauts as they were heroes.
It was mostly in that that I felt most connected to NASA. I wasn’t a space geek. I wasn’t obsessed with space, but I have always had an admiration for NASA and for the astronauts and for the people who go to space for what’s to be learned by going.
Also, obviously, Neil Armstrong would have been nice to interview, but that wasn’t possible.
And then, from talking with the scientists who are focused on the Earth science missions came the understanding that we were doing a good amount of damage to Earth through the human release of carbons. And that science was methodical and iron-clad and factual and very concerning.
And so with a deeper understanding of that, the film kind of drew that in as a natural narrative arc.
And then on the very practical level, it is because the moonshot was such a huge part of the direction our country was going at that time — it was 5 percent of the overall budget — and we invested a huge amount in the infrastructure of NASA, that we have been able to make use of that ever since, even though we haven’t invested at that same level since. As a result, I think is has been easier to continue exploring and applying that same infrastructure to the study of Earth.
You see it at that moment [in 1961] when Jack is giving that speech at Rice University and he talks about getting to the moon within the decade. That we’re going to do it. We don’t know what benefits await us and we’re going to do it anyway because it’s just our natural curiosity and we’re going to go out into the stars and we’re going to learn things that we didn’t even know we didn’t know.
And that is aspirational. It is pulling us. It is tapping into the best in all of us. And it’s saying there is going to be great risk. And there is going to be loss. And we’re still going do it. It’s that charge, it’s that leadership, it’s that we’re going into battle now to do something that’s more important than us as individuals.
I’m not seeing that leadership today. I’m ready to go to battle. I’m ready to go fight that fight. But it’s very hard to do it without leadership. So there’s an opportunity, a fantastic opportunity for somebody to step into that role. And I am hopeful that somebody will.
The facts about what’s happening to Earth are conveyed in the film, along with the facts of what we’re learning about our solar system and what Hubble is doing and all sorts of exciting, aspirational ventures that NASA is embarking on. It is within that context that this information is conveyed.