A stun­ning doc­u­men­tary by JFK’s niece ex­plores 60 years of the space agency – and its re­mark­able dis­cov­er­ies about the uni­verse

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Nicole Lam­pert

Rory Kennedy has al­ways had a pas­sion for NASA. It was her un­cle John F Kennedy’s sup­port for the space agency that en­cour­aged its first big suc­cess – land­ing a man on the moon. His 1962 speech at Rice Uni­ver­sity in Hous­ton, Texas – in which he said, ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not be­cause they are easy but be­cause they are hard’ – un­der­pinned the spirit of NASA.

Rory never met JFK, who was as­sas­si­nated five years be­fore she was born. She never met her fa­ther Bobby, JFK’s brother, ei­ther – the se­na­tor and pres­i­den­tial hope­ful was mur­dered when her mother was three months preg­nant with her in 1968. But she’s car­ry­ing on the fam­ily tra­di­tion by mak­ing an awe-in­spir­ing film about NASA as it cel­e­brates its 60th birthday.

In true Kennedy style, this is a film with a mes­sage. ‘I feel con­nected to NASA be­cause of my un­cle’s in­volve­ment and his vi­sion in get­ting us to the moon,’ she says. ‘It seemed like a good thing to look back at what NASA has ac­com­plished over six decades.

‘At first I thought I’d do it chrono­log­i­cally, but the more in­ter­views I did the more I re­alised there was some­thing else un­der­pin­ning what NASA had dis­cov­ered. The more NASA has ex­plored out­wards, the greater its ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the unique­ness of this planet be­comes. And its vul­ner­a­bil­ity.’

Rory ap­pears a lit­tle ner­vous when we meet. While she’s an ac­claimed film-maker – she was Os­car-nom­i­nated for her 2014 doc­u­men­tary Last Days In Viet­nam – she’s been dubbed ‘the quiet Kennedy’, and it suits her. She gives few in­ter­views and un­like many in Amer­ica’s fore­most po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty, she does her talk­ing through film. She doc­u­mented the wall be­tween Amer­ica and Mex­ico long be­fore it be­came an ob­ses­sion for Don­ald Trump, and has made films about preg­nant drug ad­dicts, the Aids epi­demic and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

‘I have an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for pol­i­tics but it must be very frus­trat­ing be­ing a Demo­crat right now,’ she says. ‘They don’t have con­trol of the Se­nate so there’s lit­tle they can do ex­cept ob­struct. I’m happy right now to have a voice out­side pol­i­tics where I can still con­trib­ute.’

Her 90- minute film about NASA, Above And Be­yond, for the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel is a beau­ti­ful study of all the work be­hind the scenes, what life is like for the astro­nauts who leave our planet and the space agency’s tri­umphs and tragedies.

In the two years it took to make, she talked to dozens of astro­nauts and sci­en­tists, show­ing the ef­forts that went into reach­ing the moon, the in­tro­duc­tion of the satel­lite sys­tem and the cre­ation of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. She chron­i­cles the space shut­tle ac­ci­dents of 1986 and 2003, and the won­ders seen from the Hub­ble tele- scope, which gave blurred images at first be­cause a mir­ror was less than a mil­lime­tre out of shape. And she looks to the fu­ture, at NASA’s plans to send us to Mars by 2030.

‘The story of NASA is also about the peo­ple who spend ten years work­ing on a par­tic­u­lar mir­ror or the spokes of a wheel,’ she says. ‘Peo­ple who put their lives and souls into mak­ing this quest into space pos­si­ble.’

Rory looks at how the more NASA learns about the uni­verse, the more spe­cial Earth seems. ‘Al­most ev­ery­one at NASA be­lieves we’ll find life else­where,’ she says. ‘But there are no signs of it yet, not of in­tel­li­gent life. Space isn’t re­ally friendly. For hu­mans, ev­ery month they’re out there they lose one per cent of bone mass. The more we learn about space, the more we learn about the pre­cious­ness of Earth.’

Speak­ing from the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, as­tro­naut Peggy Whit- son tells Rory, ‘The first time you see Earth from space, it’s dra­matic. You see its curve and you see that the at­mos­phere is so thin com­pared to the size of the planet. There is not much pro­tect­ing us from the vac­uum of space. It’s just a thin blue iri­des­cent band that en­ables life to ex­ist on this amaz­ing ball fly­ing through space.’

And that’s why NASA has turned its satel­lites in­wards to ex­am­ine our world. Rory shows how the agency uses lessons learned from ex­am­in­ing plan­ets such as Venus, which were once po­ten­tially hos­pitable, to study the changes caused by global warm­ing here.

We need to take note of what NASA has found, she says. ‘NASA is not a po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, but we re­ally need to look at what their data shows. They have sci­en­tists look­ing at us on the ground and from above. This is science-driven data that shows we’re fac­ing a train­wreck if more is not done to pre­vent global warm­ing.

‘I had no idea how much NASA is the source of in­for­ma­tion on cli­mate change. We’re see­ing now the ef­fects of the Earth be­ing 1ºC warmer; things that have hap­pened over the past 12 months are in line with pre­dic­tions. I live in Cal­i­for­nia and this year we’ve had some of the most dam­ag­ing for­est fires on record. There are 175mph winds in the Philip­pines, Pa­cific Is­lands are vanishing un­der­wa­ter.

‘If the planet is 5ºC warmer, we’ll be in a world that is no longer friendly to hu­mans. It’s up­set­ting peo­ple aren’t tak­ing this se­ri­ously. This theme ended up be­ing the spine of my film.

‘My un­cle showed what hap­pens when you have great lead­er­ship. He said we should take on chal­lenges be­cause they’re hard. He talked about bring­ing out the best of hu­man abil­ity, and that’s the lead­er­ship that taps into the best of us. There are some lessons there for our cur­rent Pres­i­dent.

‘I can’t imag­ine he’ll watch this – it’s too long, too full of in­for­ma­tion – but I have a mes­sage for him. We shouldn’t just tap into the worst of hu­mankind, our fears and anx­i­eties. We can do amaz­ing things when asked. We can change the course of his­tory. And we need real lead­er­ship.’

Above And Be­yond: NASA’s Jour­ney To To­mor­row will be shown to­mor­row at 8pm on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel.

Right: John and (cen­tre) Bobby Kennedy with their younger brother Teddy. Below: Rory

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