Night Movies

I like films about space travel. Real space travel.

I should explain, with great apologies to most people I know, I don’t mean sci-fi. I liked the original Star Wars.. It was new and technologically dazzling (at the time), but I was more into its artistry than story.

I tried to get into Star Trek, but just couldn’t work myself into caring too much for the crew of the Enterprise. Same with Battlestar Galactica and any other spacey spin-offs. I did like Fireball X-15 as a kid, mostly because the puppetry was just so weird.

But I love movies about real people who did really extraordinary things, like stuff themselves into a capsule atop a missile to be shot into a gravitational pull around their home planet.

This past weekend Judy and I saw Hidden Figures. What a movie! The real bonus is that I learned about three brilliant women who a day before I never knew existed. Saturday morning I read an interview with the three actresses who played mathematician Katherine Johnson, programmer Dorothy Vaughan, and engineer Mary Jackson, whose stories the film tells.

I was intrigued by their insistence that this film about African American women who worked with the Mercury space program at Langley Field, VA, not be regarded as a “black film”. Yes, the women were African American, and the film didn’t gloss over the injustices they faced in the early 60’s. What the actresses mostly wanted, according to this interview, was for the film to be about human beings doing human things.

The movie is about great things accomplished by great humans. In this case three of those humans had to overcome centuries of ignorance and injustice. These women were not exceptional examples of a human sub-set, but dedicated and hard-working, gifted people who did what dedicated hard-working, gifted people do. Even if lazy bigots tell them they can’t.

Spacey Artist

I’ve written before about my first illustrator job at McDonnell Planetarium in St. Louis. Prior to working there, I visited the Planetarium once, on a day I was cutting school. Kids, don’t do what I did.

Actually, it was a “Senior Cut Day”, and was somewhat expected and tolerated by the faculty and staff of Cleveland High School.

Who knew that just a year later I would be working in the place? The people who worked there were much more science savvy than I was, and they were more interested in real astronomy and space progress, rather than imagining fighting off lizard-like fascists in a galaxy far, far away. There were some sci-fi fans, but I think most were volunteers who worked in the gift shop.

Again, no offense my dear sci-fi fans; just not my thing.

That’s not to say the Planetarium staff weren’t imagining great things, like deeper space travel, moon colonies, raising interest in astronomy, vigorously debunking astrology (an important mission at the planetarium in the early 70’s, as new-age stuff was growing in adherents).

While astrology was debunked as pseudo-science, religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular, was respected. A number of the staff, serious scientists, were devout Catholics. One was a former seminarian, who had a degree in Philosophy from St. Louis University. He was the Director of the Planetarium Educational Program. This highly intelligent man not only saw no disconnect between science and faith, but I think he could have well argued that the bigger disconnect would be science without faith.

Each December the Planetarium Christmas show was about the Star of Bethlehem and what it might have been, astronomically speaking. Nowhere in this well-received production was there a hint of a smirking, negative suggestion that religion and science don’t mix.

I was at that time coming to terms with my own faith, and I appreciated the respectful attitude reflected at the Planetarium that something as amazing as our universe doesn’t just pop itself into existence out of nothing and for no discernible reason.

Back to the Movies.

Here are some of my favorite space films:

The Right Stuff. Chuck Yeager, you had me at Mach 2. When I saw this at the theater, I was stunned. Since I grew up seeing John Glenn and the other six Mercury astronauts on TV, I really wanted to have the kind of stuff it took to get shot into space. Who wouldn’t?

Apollo 13. Slide rules, gerry-rigged, outer space repairs, an astronaut with the flu. And Tom Hanks playing Jim Lovell telling that great Korean War story about finding his aircraft carrier by following algae in the sea.

The Dish. Australians track John Glenn as he orbits the earth. A fine film.

Thirteen Days. Okay, not actually a space travel movie, but it involves missiles, ones with CCCP painted on them and planted in Cuba. A gripping film. Though I was only seven that October, even the very young could tell something was not well in adult-ville. I was already a seasoned veteran of numerous air-raid drills.

Each of those movies tell gripping real life stories of humans doing what humans are wired to do. I find the adventure thrilling and the challenges exhilarating. John Glenn re-entering the atmosphere with a damaged heat shield facing the real danger of being burnt alive in a plummeting cone of metal. Chuck Yeager not knowing if the wings would fall off his Bell X-1, Talk about the right stuff.

If humans are doing all this with no real purpose, then there isn’t right stuff or wrong stuff, there is just stuff. If all our endeavors are only the accidental, non-intentional, grouping together of a bunch of bouncing molecules, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Well, yes I do. I will tell you that if that is the case, then those movies are useless. Their stories mean nothing in the long haul, because the universe they describe, in a bleak atheistic view, is nothing significant. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it just is. It will eventually go away, and will have meant nothing.

That’s not much of a plot for a great story, and it’s not much of an accounting for a great universe. In fact, it’s rotten depressing.

But that’s not the real story, and the movies have it right. Humans do great things because humans are great beings made in the image of a great God. I thrill at these movies because their stories are meaningful for the long haul. The heavens declare the glory of God. I’m glad for space movies, and the real thrill of being along for the eternal ride.

Rocket Boy ©2009 Ed Koehler

Planetarium photo ©20014 Ed Koehler