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Review: Fight for Space


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Fight for Space
directed by Paul J. Hildebrandt
92 mins., 2017

It’s a decades-old lament for space advocates: we went to the Moon in the 1960s and then… we stopped. What followed were years of unrealized proposals for future exploration, coupled with programs like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station that were ultimately unsatisfying for those dreaming of a lunar return or Martian expeditions. How did we get here?

The documentary has perhaps the best explanation in film of post-Apollo NASA human spaceflight policy.

That’s the question that the documentary Fight for Space, now in limited release and available through video-on-demand services, attempts to answer. On one level, it does a good job explaining the policy changes over the decades after the Apollo program. But at a deeper, more fundamental level, viewers are still left with unanswered questions about why humans have not voyaged beyond Earth orbit in nearly 45 years, and what to do about it.

Director Paul Hildebrandt uses a mix of archival video, including newscasts and NASA footage, as well as interviews with a wide range of people. Those people include space advocates, former astronauts, policy experts, and space communicators, like the omnipresent Neil deGrasse Tyson. (A note of disclosure: I was interviewed for the documentary a few years ago, but did not make it into the final cut. Given the long list of acknowledgments in the film’s credits, many others also likely ended up on the cutting room floor.)

The documentary has perhaps the best explanation in film of post-Apollo NASA human spaceflight policy. It traces the shuttle and station programs, but also efforts like the Space Task Group study early in the Nixon administration that offered bold mission proposals that were never funded. It also includes the Space Exploration Initiative, the Vision for Space Exploration, and cancellation of the Constellation program in the Obama administration. The movie’s timeline peters out with the early development of the Space Launch System and Orion; you won’t hear much about NASA’s Journey to Mars, let alone what the new Trump administration might do.

In that respect, the film does a good job explaining what happened. However, there less of a discussion of the why: we’re supposed to be angry at politicians, from Nixon to those of the present day, for not doing enough for space exploration and not giving NASA more money. (Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, is the only current politician interviewed in the movie, where he cautions that NASA cannot “defy budget gravity.”) But NASA does not operate in a political vacuum, and there are plenty of other demands on federal funding.

It’s also unclear from the movie exactly what we should be doing in human spaceflight, and how. Some people in the movie are dismissive of the ISS (Story Musgrave calls it a “massive strategic error”) but there’s no coherent plan pitched for human missions to the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. The film at one point laments the cancellation of the Saturn V, but elsewhere promotes commercial space initiatives, including footage of SpaceX’s proposed Interplanetary Transport System. It also suggests that there was a better way to carry out the Vision for Space Exploration studied in its first year, one that relied more on commercial capabilities, before new NASA administrator Mike Griffin came in and pushed for the “Apollo on steroids” Constellation approach.

At the end of the movie, you won’t be left with a clear idea of just how to “fight for space,” in the sense of what specifically you should be fighting for, and how.

The movie ends with a call to action on the screen: “Space is our future. Fight for it.” But fight for what, exactly: a major increase in NASA’s budget so it can implement something like Apollo 2.0 (3.0? 4.0?) or some alternative, commercially-led approach? The movie’s website, whose URL is also shown at the end, includes a “Take Action” page, but it offers only the most superficial of advice: join an advocacy group, write your member of Congress, and stay informed. It doesn’t advocate for any particular policy or program; the two organizations listed, The Planetary Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, often support very different things.

The film itself is well-produced, with a fine original score. As a historical account of the trials and tribulations of American human spaceflight policy in the post-Apollo era, it offers a good guide of what did, and what did not, happen. But at the end of the movie, you won’t be left with a clear idea of just how to “fight for space,” in the sense of what specifically you should be fighting for, and how.


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