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