Since the dawn of history, humans have always been fond of the stars and curious about what lies beyond that ‘big bluish-black thing’ that is hanging above their heads.
All old civilisations that existed thousands and thousands of years ago studied space and made observations of the planets and stars, from the Assyro-Babylonians and Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Chinese. Then years later, modern theories were proposed, and attempts to prove each one fueled scientific research, from the Heliocentric Model and the Galilean moons to the first lunar landing and the James Webb Space Telescope.
As curious as a cat can be, we never stop wondering about that big mystery called the Universe. We want to know how it existed and where all these incredibly large and distant astronomical objects came from.
Thus, since the dawn of history, we have been feverishly looking for answers.
So in the past, I mean in the very, very past, ancient humans depended on naked-eye observations and mathematics to understand the Universe. They designed theories and tried to prove them right (or wrong) by looking at the sky and monitoring the movement of the moon, planets, and stars.
After thousands of years of theoretical and practical exploration, it seemed like humans settled on a model that claimed the Earth was the centre of the Universe.
Then came Galileo, the famous Italian astronomer and mathematician who dared to confront the Catholic Church and made a breakthrough in astronomy, which he paid his freedom in support of.
Although he truly was not the one who invented it, Galileo was the first to ever direct a telescope toward the sky. Based on his telescopic observations, Galileo concluded that the Sun, not the Earth, is the centre of the Solar System and that all the planets and objects revolve directly or indirectly around it.
That was back in the mid-17th century.
Space exploration continued ever since until it peaked, or say instead fired up, in the mid-20th century. Despite the post-World War II tense atmosphere and the heated competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, space exploration became more systematic, with each side racking up its resources and scientific research to outperform the other.
It all started with the Soviets launching the first-ever satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957. In the same year, they also launched Sputnik 2 with Laika, the first animal to go to space, on board. The Soviets then triumphed as they sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, to space on 12 April 1961.
At the same time, the US side was doing its best to catch up with the Soviets and even surpass them. On 12 September 1961, Kennedy gave the famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in which he implicitly challenged the Soviets to send a man to the moon and bring him back home before the end of the decade.
Though Kennedy never lived to see America win the Space Race, after that ‘giant leap for mankind,’ space exploration was taken to a whole new level. Gradually, more countries entered the arena by establishing their national space agencies, developing space programmes, sending satellites, and even making other moon landings.
And as humans are ridiculously fond of documenting everything, let alone using it to spark the imagination, literally hundreds of fictional and non-fictional films were made to tell the stories behind those great astronomical discoveries.
For that matter, we brought to you these 12 films that will provide great entertainment, help you learn more about space, and leave you gracefully stunned.
So let’s hop into it.
Feature films are different from documentaries as their main purpose is to entertain the audience rather than educate them. Most of the time, feature films are the pure product of authors’ and directors’ imagination. They usually run for more than 40 minutes and use actors, sets, and scripted dialogues. Other times, feature films can depict reality but still amuse the viewers. Sometimes, for that very goal, they may divert a little from the true story just to serve the final product.
In this section, we will demonstrate some feature films, all based on true stories related to space exploration. Others are adaptations of non-fictional books and biographies.
1. Gagarin: First in Space
“I see Earth! It is so beautiful.”
Despite getting somewhat shadowed by Neil Armstrong’s prevailed moonwalk, Yuri Gagarin will always remain the first human to ever get into a spaceship, travel hundreds of kilometres up, and revolve around our blue planet. He is the man who actually initiated the Space Race.
Gagarin was a Soviet Air Force pilot who was chosen among 154 other qualified candidates to take part in the Vostok programme. That was the Soviet human spaceflight project intended to send humans to space and bring them safely back to Earth.
Along with 28 other pilots, Gagarin was shortlisted. Then he was shortlisted again among the other 20 that were approved. The list was further narrowed based on the pilots’ performances in the extreme examinations they had to go through. Gagarin seemed to excel in all of them.
There was also something about him that made his peers favour him. For instance, when all the shortlisted candidates were asked who they would choose, apart from themselves, to be the first to fly to space, they anonymously voted for him.
Eventually, Gagarin was selected for the mission. And at 6:07 am local time on 12 April 1961, spacecraft Vostok 1 with 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin onboard was launched from a spaceport in Southern Kazakhstan, and “Off we go! Goodbye, until [we meet] soon, dear friends.”
Vostok 1 ascended to an altitude of 301 km above sea level. Gagarin orbited Earth once, a journey that took 89 minutes and then headed back to Earth, landing safely at 7:55 am. At that exact moment, he became the man who stepped inside the spacecraft as a normal human being and came out of it as a hero that will be remembered for as long as this Earth he orbited is meant to exist.
Gagarin: First in Space is a 2013 docudrama film. It tells the story of Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space journey aboard Vostok 1. The film, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, runs for 108 minutes, the same length as Gagarin’s journey, and stars Russian Actor Yaroslav Zhalnin as Yuri Gagarin.
This biopic thriller film received praise for being comparatively neutral, as far from politics as possible. It only focused on the Russians working hard to make a breakthrough, with little to no mention of the competition with the Americans. In addition, it displayed a high level of realism, good storytelling, and fine cinematography.
On the other hand, the film being a state production—produced by Kremlin Films—got some criticism, most probably because it was viewed as propaganda. But even if that is true, the event of Gagarin officially initiating the Space Race by such a quantum lead can never be devalued.
2. First Man
Yes, you guessed it.
First Man is the American correspondent to Gagarin: First in Space, featuring Neil Armstrong’s journey to the Moon. Since it is a Hollywood film, the producers refrained from elaborating on what kind of first man the film was introducing, unlike the Russians, who clearly specified that their first man was the first in space. An American film called First Man with a man in a space helmet on the poster? Oh, that must be Armstrong.
Another common thing between this film and its Russian counterpart is that both of them almost have the same poster. The only difference is that the main character in the Russian film is a right profile while the American one is looking left!
First Man, however, is based on Neil Armstrong’s official biography, First Man, written by the American history professor James R. Hansen. The book came out in 2005, and the film was released in 2018.
Like Gagarin, Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator. He was also an aerospace engineer, a test pilot, and later an astronaut who made the first step on the Moon.
Armstrong started his astronaut career in June 1958 when he was chosen for the Man In Space Soonest, the U.S. Air Force programme. Such a programme was intended to send a man to space before the Soviets. Again, the MISS was the American equivalent of the Russian programme, Vostok. However, the MISS was soon cancelled and replaced by Project Mercury.
Surprisingly, Armstrong was not able to apply as an astronaut for Project Mercury as the selection of astronauts was only limited to military pilots. When Project Gemini was started—it planned to send men to a lower Earth orbit—Armstrong was able to apply as the programme accepted civilian pilots. Soon he was chosen within the Gemini 5 crew as well as Gemini 8 and Gemini 11.
On 5 April 1967, Armstrong was selected among 17 other astronauts for the first lunar mission and was assigned Apollo 11 command. Shortly, he started training for the big mission.
Training for such missions was not easy at all, and it involved a great deal of risk. Incidents happened, and some people died. Losing the Apollo 1 crew, for instance, was the most tragic incident and almost ended the space programme. Armstrong himself was about to lose his life in a deadly crash.
One day as he was training in a lunar landing research module, which simulates the one that would later land on the Moon, Armstrong suddenly lost control. So he quickly ejected from the module and used his parachute to land safely. Meanwhile, the aircraft descended and crashed into the ground.
After many years of hard work, the most awaited day came, and as millions of people watched live on TV, Mission Apollo 11 was launched on the NASA-developed rocket Saturn V from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on 16 July 1969.
Onboard there was Neil Armstrong, who was chosen to make the first moonwalk; Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon; and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, who dropped the first two off and picked them up from the lunar orbit. Yes, Collins never really made it to the Moon’s surface.
Four days and six hours later, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a little less than a day on the Moon’s surface and then made their way back home. Apollo 11 arrived safely on Earth on 24 July 1969.
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Unlike Gagarin: First in Space, First Man focuses more on Neil Armstrong rather than his historical Moon landing. It documents a time during which Armstrong, the tenderly smiling, self-confident guy, was highly distressed, showing a side of his personal life that a minority of people know about.
First Man is a Universal Pictures film directed by Damien Chazelle. It stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as Neil’s wife. The film runs for 141 minutes and was first shown at the 2018 Venice Film Festival in August. The film was later released in American theatres in October of the same year.
The film received praise for the actors’ performances, music, and storyline. However, for some reason, it was a commercial failure, making only $105 million worldwide, way less than double its gross budget of $70 million.
Despite that, the film received numerous nominations, including two at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, seven at the 72nd British Academy Film Awards, and four nominations at the 91st Academy Awards. First Man received a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Editing and Actor, and an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
3. Apollo 13
If you are familiar with NASA’s moon missions, it should not be hard for you to recall when the quoted sentence above was said. If you do not, then let me tell you that it refers to the scariest moment in the entire history of NASA’s space exploration.
Apollo 13 took off on 11 April 1970, heading again to the Moon. After the two successful missions of Apollo 11 and Apollo 12, NASA still needed to send more humans to the Moon and make more Moon landings, even though that was incredibly expensive.
However, Apollo 13 never really touched the Moon’s surface. In fact, that was not important at all but getting the astronauts onboard safely back to Earth was.
That is because Apollo 13 was a near catastrophe.
Three days into the mission, an explosion in the oxygen tanks happened and caused rapid leakage. Within three hours, all the stored oxygen meant to take the astronauts to the Moon and deliver them back to Earth was lost.
With no oxygen left in the spacecraft, what will the three astronauts do to get back to Earth? Will they ever be able to make it? Or will they get lost in the void and float on end?
Well, Apollo 13’s success came from the heart of its failure as the astronauts and everyone in Mission Control worked incredibly hard to get the spacecraft back to Earth. I do not mean to joke, but nothing defines ‘work under pressure’ as this mission does.
On 17 April 1970, the Apollo 13 crew returned to Earth after living through the harsh experience.
Apollo 13 tells the story of those three brave astronauts and their extreme efforts to survive the oxygen-tank loss, diverge from their path to the Moon, and return to Earth. The film is, in fact, based on the 1994 Lost Moon book written by Astronaut Jim Lovell, an Apollo 13 crew member, with the aid of Journalist Jeffrey Kluger.
Apollo 13 was produced by Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, playing the three Apollo 13 astronauts, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, respectively.
The film, released in 1995, was a great success, making a total of $355 million worldwide and winning two Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound, as well as two British Academy Film Awards.
You can watch Apollo 13 on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. A documentary of the Apollo 13 disastrous mission is also available on Hulu.
4. October Sky
The three films we have mentioned earlier document quite famous events. But few are those films that tell the stories of less known events or people, even if their influence was huge. October Sky is one of these films.
Based on a memoir of the same name, October Sky tells the story of NASA Aerospace Engineer Homer Hickam. Hickam was involved in many famous projects in the Space Programme, including the Space Shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the International Space Station programme.
Hickam’s passion for space actually started when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. When he went to the field to watch the first satellite crossing the sky, he did not get his head down for long. When he did, he went off to learn everything about rockets and eventually became a NASA engineer.
October Sky is a biographical drama film produced and distributed by Universal Pictures, released in February 1999. It runs for 107 minutes and stars then-19-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal and Laura Dern.
The film received acclaim for the actors’ performances as well as the values it provides, best represented by Hickam’s relationships with his family members and friends.
You can watch October Sky on Netflix, Apple TV, Disney Plus, and Hulu.
5. The Right Stuff
Most of the time, the shiny achievements shadow the years of hard work and failures that led to them. Just like many people think success happens overnight, we, the public, might find it hard to imagine what it really took to deliver people to the Moon, send space probes to Jupiter, land robots on Mars, or build the James Webb Space Telescope.
One film that uncovers some of that hard work is The Right Stuff, which is actually an adaptation of a book of the same name written by Tom Wolfe. The film follows the story of seven test pilots who played incredibly important roles in space exploration research, yet, only a few people know about them.
Commonly known as the Mercury Seven, those test pilots were chosen to fly spacecraft for Project Mercury, the first American project intended to send humans to space. In addition to flying, the chosen seven were involved in the science of designing and manufacturing spacecraft and rockets.
No one can deny how valuable the story of the film is. Despite that, there seem to be some contradicting views surrounding it. For instance, when the film was released in 1983, it received huge praise, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won four of them at the 56th Academy Awards in 1984.
On the flip side, The Right Stuff was sort of a Box Office failure. It made only $21.1 million, while its production cost was $27 million. When the film was released on videotape, however, it was a sales success. Then in 2013, it was considered so culturally and historically significant that it was preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
So all we can recommend here is to watch and judge for yourself.
The Right Stuff was written and directed by Philip Kaufman and starred many American actors, including Charles Frank, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn. The film is available on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. A 2020 drama series adaptation is also available on these streaming platforms.
6. Hidden Figures
This is another out-of-this-world bio-drama film about little-known, great contributions to space exploration research which cumulatively made America win the Space Race. It is based on a nonfiction book of the same name that Margot Lee Shetterly wrote and released in 2016.
But besides that, the film’s premise revolves around who made these contributions, which gives it so much weight. Hidden Figures follows the story of three African American female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, who worked at NASA in the 1960s.
At the time, women, whether they were white or black, were already encountering gender inequality. Their pay was way less than what men received. They were constantly, verbally, and sexually harassed. If a woman was persistent enough to make her way in professional life, her abilities were rather underestimated.
Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s, America was undergoing the civil rights movement, sparked by Rosa Parks and later led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
So if the situation of African Americans was already troubled, what about African American women?
Hidden Figures is a film about the discrimination and opposition African American women encountered while working at NASA. But even with that, these three women strived to overcome racism and succeeded in sending the first American man to space, Alan B. Shephard, as part of Project Mercury.
The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. It was directed by Theodore Melfi and produced by three companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, and Levantine Films. Hidden Figures was a box office success, making more than $236 million, 9.5 times its production budget.
The film received praise for many of its aspects, including the actors’ performances, accurate depiction, and cinematography. You can watch Hidden Figures on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, and Disney Plus.
Unlike the feature films we mentioned earlier, documentaries are a whole different thing and a personal favourite film genre. Documentary films are meant to educate the audience about the real events they demonstrate with high accuracy. This is typically achieved by using real sounds and video recordings, scenes from real locations, and interviews with the real people around whom the film is made.
In that matter, documentary films do not usually require a large budget like feature films, and they are usually shorter than them. Narration is also often used to make it easy for the audience to follow the story.
Here are six documentary films about space that you should have on your to-watch list.
Armstrong is a 2019 documentary film that follows the life story of Neil Armstrong. Unlike First Man, which gives a small glimpse of the famous astronaut’s life, this documentary takes us back to Armstrong’s early childhood, his career in the navy, his joining NASA, and the aftermath of his Moon landing.
This masterpiece is narrated by Harrison Ford and uses archive footage of Neil Armstrong and interviews with others who played crucial roles in his life.
Armstrong is available to watch on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.
2. Apollo 11
Although multiple feature films were made about the first Moon landing, this 2019 Apollo 11 film is a finely-crafted documentary that shows more than just a glance at all the work that led to the success of that mission.
Apollo 11 was specially made for the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing. It was produced, directed, and edited by American Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, who, three years earlier, had directed a documentary named The Last Steps about NASA’s 1972 last Moon landing mission, Apollo 17.
Apollo 11 runs for 93 minutes and uses archival footage, some of which were never publicly released. According to viewers, the film is high quality, the footage is unspoiled, and the sound and music are incredible.
The film received a total of 22 leading awards nominations and won 16 of them, including Best Archival Documentary, Best Documentary Feature, Best Editing, and Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction or Reality programme.
In other words, it is a must-watch masterpiece.
You can watch Apollo 11 on Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video.
3. Mercury 13
Like Hidden Figures, Mercury 13 is a film about how women were treated when it came to space exploration. As mentioned earlier, NASA’s Project Mercury, running from 1958 to 1963, was America’s first human spaceflight programme aimed at sending humans to space, more precisely to an Earth orbit, and returning them safely back to Earth.
But ‘humans’ for NASA only meant men and not any men but mainly pilots and submarine crew members, with skills like climbing, parachuting, and diving in the deep, deep sea.
To avoid thousands of pilots and submarine crew members applying for that opportunity, they excluded civilians altogether and, as recommended by President Eisenhower, boiled candidates down to military test pilots. As we have seen earlier, Neil Armstrong himself could not join Project Mercury because he was a civilian test pilot.
So NASA started Project Mercury and, in 1958, appointed Dr William Randolph Lovelace II as head of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences, a job which allowed him to contribute to selecting astronauts for Project Mercury.
The next year, in 1959, Lovelace took part in a programme that examined women in spaceflight. Thirteen women successfully went through the screen tests that once qualified the other male astronauts NASA and Lovelace selected for spaceflight, the Mercury Seven, if you recall from above.
In other words, these 13 women were fully capable of space travel; however, for some unfair reason, they were not selected for any astronaut programmes at NASA.
Mercury 13 is a documentary that tells the close stories of these women, how they applied, what capabilities they had, what challenges they encountered, and why they never made it to space.
The film was produced by and is available on Netflix.
4. The Last Steps
As of 2022, it has been 50 years since Apollo 17, NASA’s last mission in the Apollo programme. Although the Soviet Union and China had already made it to the Moon, only the US sent men there. This happened a total of six times.
The Last Steps is another mesmerising documentary by Todd Douglas Miller about NASA’s last human-crewed Moon landing mission, produced by CNN Films and Great Big Story in 2016. Again, Miller uses rarely-seen archival material and interviews that flow solely, without narration, in a sequence that tells the complete story of the mission, from the pre-launch stages to the very end.
5. Columbia’s Last Flight
Most of the time, great achievements dim the failures that preceded them. When it comes to the great technological advancements NASA have achieved, we often fail to assess what a teeny-tiny mistake in any of these successful projects might have cost. We might mistakenly think that disasters do not happen.
Unfortunately, they do, and “Columbia’s Last Flight” is a documentary that unveils how a series of trifling mistakes may eventually lead to a catastrophe.
Columbia was NASA’s first space shuttle to fly in space. It was first launched in April 1981 and has been used to take and return astronauts to and from space. Columbia was assigned a scientific mission, its 28th mission, and took off on 16 January 2003. Onboard were seven astronauts, two of whom were women.
After a successful liftoff, the shuttle arrived in orbit and began its journey.
Columbia spent two weeks in space. Everything was fine; the astronauts did all their experiments and got the results they sought. Then, on 1 February 2003, Columbia headed back to Earth. However, it never really made it, at least as one piece.
While Columbia was reentering the atmosphere, a fatal mistake that no one paid enough attention to caused the shuttle to break up, killing all seven crew members.
So how did that tragedy happen? Well, this 2005 45-minute documentary explains the incident in easily understandable yet distressing details using a backward sequence as a result of a feverish, prolonged investigation.
“Columbia’s Last Flight” is the first episode of season two of the TV programme Seconds from Disaster. The programme was produced, distributed, and broadcasted by National Geographic. This documentary is available on National Geographic TV and Disney Plus.
6. Space Shuttle Challenger
Way before Space Shuttle Columbia tragically broke apart, precisely on 28 January 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger met a similar fate. However, Challenger did not disintegrate while reentering the atmosphere but when trying to leave it.
Only 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts onboard and falling as pieces to reside on the Atlantic Ocean floor.
This 55-minute documentary is another episode of the Seconds from Disaster programme. It was first aired on 7 March 2007. Space Shuttle “Space Shuttle Challenger” follows the same backward sequence and uses the investigation results to explain to the audience what caused the disaster.