Film Review: Fight for Space (2017)

“Where is your space program?”

This is the tagline that summarizes the independent documentary “Fight for Space“.  Produced and directed by Paul J. Hildebrandt, the film attempts to discern the point at which NASA deviated from the traditionally understood pathway of space exploration to the stasis the agency exists in today.

Fight for Space collects a considerable “who’s who” of spaceflight luminaries- from Apollo era astronauts to the most prominent astrophysicists in popular culture today.  Through interviews, the audience gets a glimpse of the opinions of these noted individuals. This is the film’s strength and crutch. By focusing much on the perspectives of those closest to the state of NASA in the 1960s, it emphasizes the positives of the Lunar exploration missions without explaining the scientific progress being made in space today.

Fight for Space is heavy on the nostalgia for the Project Apollo and the lunar landing missions of 1968-1972.  I say this upfront as framework in which to understand the documentary.  As the lunar landings have defined the extant which our species as travelled beyond Earth, they also remain as the benchmark for public perception of what space exploration is to be.  And in many cases, this measuring rod is wielded by space exploration advocates as well.  In Fight for Space, the viewer is introduced to a number of outspoken spaceflight advocates who adhere to this idea, and aren’t subtle in their presentation of it.

Following President Kennedy’s 1961 address at Rice University, political momentum built to surpass the Soviet Union in the development of human spaceflight.  In a simple challenge, a goal was set that drove the fledgling NASA to the surface of the Moon. When that was achieved in 1969, a few additional missions continued, until public and political support dwindled and the project was terminated.  This unparalleled event has remained so, as no further human missions beyond earth orbit have been carried out.  Fight for Space  takes the viewers back to this period, letting such gentlemen as Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell, and Story Musgrave describe the incentive for Kennedy’s challenge.

Why did NASA stop sending astronauts to the Moon?  Perhaps no other question dominates the public consciousness concerning the space program.  This documentary explores that question thoroughly, which becomes the film’s strength. From Kennedy’s brinksmanship, to Johnson’s maintenance of the legacy, and finally Nixon’s self-imposed strife, the audience is shown how the executive branch dictated space policy, from Mercury to the Space Station.  As compelling as the missions themselves, the history of NASA is populated by heroes and villains in the quest for funding.  The stories of compromises that resulted in the final Space Shuttle configuration and contemporary Orion spacecraft are both heart-breaking and hopeful tales on par with the greatest of the golden age oceanic voyages.

Space policy professionals such as Marcia Smith, Rick Tumilson, James Muncy, and John Logsdon add their takes on the fate of Apollo and what it meant for NASA throughout the film.  These interviews are the meat in this sandwich, offering nuanced perspectives on the direction of the space program from professionals who were not astronauts or engineers. Each of these speakers makes the point that, in essence, its not for a lack of technical failure that Apollo was discontinued, but a lack of political will. [We] stopped going to the Moon because [we] (Congress and the White House) chose not to.  I emphasize this is an important distinction he film makes- NASA didn’t curtail human spaceflight, the bureaucratic and partisan machinations of government did.

What this results in is less a documentary than a lament for space exploration achievements of the past.  There is no fault in the direction, cinematography, or editing in Fight for Space.  Nor is there a criticism in the message- that human spaceflight is best destiny for our species.  Where the film falters, when it does, is the emphasis that “NASA is going nowhere”.  (This message is reinforced by interviews with Robert Zubrin, Lovell, and Musgrave).  Emphasis on “destinations and timelines”, such as Kennedy’s 1961 speech, oversimplify the challenges of space exploration and hint at repeating the errors inherent to Project Apollo.  One of the best sequences in the film shows the fallacy of building disposable spacecraft that shed components via computer simulation of an airliner discarding its wings, tail, engines on a flight from Los Angles to New York.  Again later, there is a point where narration commends the Russian space agencies for relaying on sustainable technologies to support orbital access. Yet this epiphany is buried just as quickly as it is shown by over emphasizing the successes of the Saturn V rockets (Of which not one component was reusable, and which was monetarily unsustainable).

I was disappointed in how the film chose to represent the contemporary era of NASA (and it’s commercial partners) and in particular, the International Space Station.  ISS, as it’s abbreviated, has been the focus of much of the negative press aimed at NASA.  Many politicians, space advocacy pundits, and spaceflight enthusiasts tend to point toward the space station as “all that is wrong” with America’s government managed space program. This film could have made point to better share the science being conducted in orbit today, perhaps even altering the public perception of ISS.  Instead, we are left with a few minutes in the movie where random pedestrians are interviewed about the role of ISS, in which each person admits to their ignorance of it. The director rightly ascribes to NASA’s inability as a n agency to “sell” ISS to the general public, but then does the same by leaving the viewer with no answers.

Of all the “space celebrities” interviewed for the documentary, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was by far the clearest in enunciating the political dance NASA has endured in it’s 50+ years.  As much as many spaceflight enthusiasts are loath to admit it, the agency cannot act independently of the legislative and executive branches of our government.  To lambaste the administrators of NASA for “lack of will and vision” is a copout.  NASA can only do what it is authorized (and funded) to do.  The film illustrates the transition period from the Space Shuttle and potential follow-on vehicle development programs Constellation and Space Launch System. Much to the credit of the director, the film does not take any partisan political slant here where too many others have before.  Many space policy advocates have pointed to the previous federal administration as crippling the space program for the cancellation of Constellation, but few diagnose correctly the ailment was lack of congressional support.  Fight for Space rightly shines the light on this controversy without falling for the easy path of choosing a political scapegoat.

My review of this movie may seem mixed, and that would be truthful from my (as yet) single viewing.  As someone who has absorbed a great deal of the media surrounding NASA and it’s contemporary space programs, I feel that this documentary missed an opportunity to tell the story of what is happening is space NOW.   Indeed, “where is your space program?”. It’s not in the 1960s, nor shouldn’t it be.  There is so much more to the progress necessary for any future explorations of Mars, for example, than shown in this film.  Overemphasis on launch vehicles is one of the most aggravating elements of space advocacy in my personal opinion.  And that is the sidestep this film does when lamenting the cancellation of the Saturn V rockets. (An educational sequence to be sure, but is that what the audience should take away from this?)

Human space exploration has always been a story of hope.  There can be a powerful, positive message in any film describing the progress of understanding our solar system.  Fight for Space doesn’t necessarily become that movie. The audience is left with hopeful statements by Dr. Tyson and Mr. Tumilson, following a sequence describing the benefits of an inspired populace. Examples included technology spinoffs, higher education participation, increased understanding of STEM principles – obvious to the space enthusiasts, and necessary for any film advocating spaceflight.  But by turning to look back on the glory of Apollo, we lose sight of where we’re going. (Or for those who interpret NASA’s current path as going nowhere, where we CAN go.)  Perhaps it would be the topic of a different documentary, but as it has been repeated consistently that the goal NASA is pursuing is human missions to Mars, I believe it would have been more effective to include the research a development taking place within NASA today as a coda, and ask “WHEN are we going?”