It isn’t surprising that I got a lump in my throat at space probe Cassini’s Grand Finale plunge into Saturn. What’s striking is that so many other people seem to have felt the same way, as described in the aforelinked article and a Sept. 16 Washington Post editorial titled “The Cassini mission embodies the best of humanity.” No immediately profitable results, no earthly use—and yet quite a range of people seem to have been moved by the end of this long-running mission.
The Cassini Grand Finale followed immediately upon another widely popular sky event, the eclipse of August 21, 2017. A total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States is rare enough that dedicated eclipse watchers were naturally excited. But the level of interest in the general public was quite remarkable. Libraries, giving away eclipse-watching glasses to the public, ran out of them well before the big day.
Why this sudden upsurge in astronomical interest? My guess is that at a time when other news is so depressing, and human inhumanity to humans is so prevalent, we long to hear about something that’s both bigger than ourselves, and wonderful rather than terrible.
I recently read Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly. This historical-biographical work tells the story of the African-American women who worked with NASA during the “space race,” at a time when neither women, nor African-Americans, were typically considered candidates for science positions. Their mathematical expertise was crucial in making possible the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.
An excellent movie based on the book—I’ve seen it twice so far—came out in December 2016, which must set some kind of record for speedy translation of a book to the big screen. The film, as is usual with historical movies, alters the facts somewhat to dramatize the changes taking place. But it effectively conveys how the intrepid characters overcame prejudices and organizational impediments to make great contributions.
Part of the lump-in-the-throat uplift I felt in this story comes from the chance, for once, to see people doing the right thing in terms of justice and respect for everyone. But another part comes from the fact that the achievements of the women depicted in the book and movie weren’t just any successes. They were specifically in the area of spaceflight, appealing to the science- and science-fiction enthusiast in me as well as the admirer of virtue. In that respect, I was reminded of an older favorite film, The Right Stuff.
The Right Stuff
A generation ago, Tom Wolfe’s idiosyncratic history of Project Mercury and the test-pilot culture out of which it grew, The Right Stuff (1979), became a 1983 movie by Philip Kaufman. From the slapstick humor of the medical testing, to the cheerfully cynical depiction of the public-relations machine that went to work on the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff took a decidedly down-to-earth look at the space program. But as the story develops, those mundane aspects merely serve to underline the genuine courage and daring of the Mercury pioneers.
The movie has long been a favorite in my household. Aided by a soaring score from Bill Conti, The Right Stuff awakens the same sense of wonder we feel from Hidden Figures—with the earthier aspects to remind us that, inspiring as the story may be, this isn’t a fairy tale or even solid SF; it really happened.
These two space race movies obviously have a lot in common. They share a historical setting, though they approach it from quite different angles, and they cover some of the same events. Each features an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character. Some of the characters even overlap; John Glenn plays an important role in both.
Each is a fictionalized movie made from a nonfiction book. To present their stories, screenwriters and directors have to invent actual dialogue and scenes that aren’t part of the historical record. Conversely, the books cover more ground than the movies can possibly handle. The book Hidden Figures, for example, starts its narrative in World War II, while the movie opens around 1960.
More important, I think, is the mood evoked by the two films. The distinctiveness of that emotion arises from the fact that the U.S. space program is one of the few enterprises in recent history that joins heroic dedication to an aspirational goal, with a visually impressive record that can be readily appreciated by all of us. (One might point to medical successes, for example, as equally noble—say, the development of the polio vaccine. But rockets are easier to see and appreciate than bacteria.)
So many of the great heroic efforts we can point to are wars. The perennial appeal of stories about World War II, the American Civil War, Star Wars, the War of the Ring, show how these exemplars of courage and perseverance continue to move us. But even when such wars are justified, they are essentially negative efforts. The participants strive to prevent something—to avert or amend some great evil—and the means for doing so unavoidably involve harm and destruction.
These stories about the space program, on the other hand, remind us that equally great and heroic efforts can be made for affirmative purposes. They arouse that heart-lifting sense of people striving mightily together for goals that are not destructive, but wholly aspirational. To the wonder of discovery and exploration are added the glory of humans exercising their best qualities—intelligence, diligence, boldness, cooperation. These true stories give us a sense of unity in a good cause, like the “band of brothers” forged in wartime, but without the corresponding division and opposition of a human enemy.
This isn’t Pollyanna territory. The Right Stuff pays plenty of attention to human foibles and pettiness; but they become trivial in the great achievements of the movie’s second half. Hidden Figures specifically addresses human vices—and sweeps them aside in the name of something greater. As with Cassini and the eclipse, we have a chance to focus, for a while, on something that extends beyond ourselves and calls out the best in us. We don’t ignore human weakness, but we are given examples of how, from time to time, we can transcend it.
These are stories worth telling.