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Review: A Million Miles Away

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A Million Miles Away
directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella
Amazon Prime Video, 2023
121 minutes, rated PG

We are used to a steady, if low volume, stream of astronaut memoirs. People who became NASA (or sometimes ESA or CSA) astronauts describe their journeys to space, recounting the paths they took to realize dreams, often dating from childhood, about becoming astronauts. The individual stories are unique even if they share common traits and characteristics, like perseverance and persistence.

Few, though, make the leap from the page to the screen. An exception is A Million Miles Away, the new dramatization of the life of former NASA astronaut José Hernández. He wrote a memoir about his path to becoming an astronaut more than a decade ago (see “Review: Reaching for the Stars”, The Space Review, September 4, 2012), and his life story springs to life in this movie, released last month on Amazon Prime Video.

The movie comes down to a central question: how long do you keep chasing a dream when it looks like you’re making little progress?

Michael Peña plays the adult Hernández after some opening scenes that featured a young Hernández, going from town to town with his migrant farmworker parents but already starting to dream of spaceflight. A college graduate with a new job as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab—where he is given menial assignments and is mistaken by a secretary as the new janitor—he pursues his dream of becoming an astronaut sending in application after application and receiving rejection after rejection.

Much of the movie focuses on that effort and the effect it has on his family, in particular his wife, as they try to balance his dreams with their needs and desires. It comes down to a central question: how long do you keep chasing a dream when it looks like you’re making little progress? In the movie, he decides, with his wife’s support, to double down on the goal, learning skills like scuba diving and piloting an aircraft, to enhance his chances of being selected. And, of course, it works.

For all that effort, actually becoming an astronaut could seem a little anticlimactic. The movie, though, keeps up the dramatic intensity, offering more adversity, like training setbacks, to suggest that Hernández might never get to fly. It’s here where the movie perhaps takes the most dramatic license, like a speech by astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow to the new astronaut class that included Hernández where he said “most candidates don’t make it through the full training”; in fact, few astronaut candidates wash out. (On the other hand, the movie does give the astronauts nicer facilities than the actual aging, drab buildings at NASA centers as well as, at one point, a security retinue that looks like Secret Service agents in matching suits, with a mission patch on the suit jacket.)

Hernández, of course, does get to fly to space on the STS-128 mission at the end of the movie, a sequence that includes clips from his actual flight. (Hernández gets a cameo in the movie as a member of the closeout crew for the launch.) While we know the outcome—a successful flight and realization of a dream since childhood—it is nonetheless an entertaining movie about following through on one’s dreams, no matter how long it takes.

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