Next Stop Mars? … Maybe

This breathless celebration of space travel in the post-shuttle era is long on beautiful pictures, but short on hard truths.

The men who left their footprints on the moon are slipping away one by one. The surviving space shuttles have been sent to museums, where artfully designed panels recall missions already forgotten by most who come to gawk at the immense machines. The International Space Station (ISS) still passes overhead every 90-minutes, but crews ride to it aboard Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. The eight new astronauts chosen by NASA in 2012, who completed their basic training in July 2015, will fly aboard spacecraft that have not yet been built, on missions that have not yet been planned.

The year 2016 is thus (to put it mildly) an odd time for a breathless documentary on America’s glorious future in space, but Journey to Space does its damndest to be precisely that. Alas, it’s only partially successful, but casual space-travel fans will find its limitations few and easily forgiven. Audiences with a longer view (or a deeper understanding) of the subject are likely to find much of this film shallow, disingenuous, and frustrating. Virtually everyone, however, will find the images magnificent.

Journey to Space is presented in three versions across two discs: the now (virtually) standard 2D Blu-Ray, plus 3D Blu-Ray and 4K Ultra HD for those with the equipment to take advantage of them. Giant-screen cinematography and HD video make for a beautiful match, and the film’s sense of spectacle comes through even on a relatively modest living-room television. NASA, with a half-century of experience filming people in space, has mastered the art of making astronauts and machines look good on screen. Even the most familiar clips — the nth night launch of a space shuttle, vertigo-inducing spacewalk, or playful demonstration of weightlessness — retain the capacity to thrill.

Writer-director Mark Krenzien blends the NASA-shot film with footage of next-generation NASA hardware being tested, overlain with commentary by former shuttle astronaut Chris Ferguson, current astronaut Serena Aunon, and spacesuit engineer Lindsay Aitchison. All three have a natural on-camera presence, mixing next-door-neighbor warmth with an endearingly geeky intensity. At one point, Ferguson looks down at a half-assembled Orion spacecraft — a donut-shaped jumble of exposed wires and incomprehensible parts — and declares: “What an impressive vehicle! Look at that: It’s beautiful!” The statement seems ludicrous, but Ferguson instantly makes you believe that, to him, it is beautiful.

The least successful parts of Journey to Space are, surprisingly, the elaborate computer-animated sequences that outline a hypothetical human-crewed Mars mission of the 2030s. It suffers, paradoxically, from the sheer familiarity of its (seemingly) exotic, cutting-edge content: delicate, modular ships for deep-space travel and aero-braking maneuvers in the thin Martian atmosphere; six-wheeled rovers and pre-stocked habitats landed by remote control. We’ve seen it all before — rendered more elaborately and explored more intimately — in films like Mission to Mars, Red Planet, and The Martian. The workmanlike renderings in Journey to Space seem bland by comparison.

Journey to Space sets out to tell three distinct stories — one about the space shuttle, one about the continuing mission of the ISS, and one about yet-to-be-built technology that will take NASA astronauts to Mars — and weave them into a single, seamless narrative. It’s a tall order for a film that runs about 20 percent shorter than an average episode of Nova, and the effects are visible in every one of its 41 minutes. Scenes are clipped short, linking narration is surprisingly sparse, and explanations are brief and rudimentary. The film plays as if Krenzien is, like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, perpetually eyeing his pocket watch and fretting that he’s behind schedule.

The film’s telegraphic style sometimes leads it into awkward places. Trying to do so much, in so little time, leaves little room for depth or nuance when explaining complicated ideas. After cataloging the medical effects of long-term exposure to low gravity, from loss of bone density and muscle tone to changes in vision, Aunon — a doctor specializing in aerospace medicine — concludes with the breathtaking oversimplification that “exercise is the antidote to most problems caused by weightlessness”. The use of an inflatable habitat module for Mars-bound ships, and the need to shield inhabited spaces against cosmic background radiation, each flit by in a matter of seconds, with no effort made to connect them. Concepts like aerobraking, pre-positioned habitat modules, and mining the Martian soil for fuel are shown in the animated sequences without even a sentence of explanation.

The film’s sins of omission are particularly evident, to those familiar with NASA history, in its bizarre rewriting of that history. Journey to Space presents the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the yet-to-be-flown Orion as three steps on a carefully planned road to the stars. The shuttle, it explains, took us to the edge of Low Earth Orbit and showed that we could do useful work there. The ISS (“the shuttle’s truest legacy”) taught us how to live and work in low Earth orbit for as long as a year. Orion, the core of a new generation of deep-space vessels, will take us further: to Mars and “the next frontiers beyond”. What it fails to note is that these dreams have been dreamed many, many times before.

In the ’50s, Wernher von Braun and his corps of expatriate rocketeers thrilled the public with plans for a step-by-step conquest of space: winged spacecraft shuttling passengers and cargo, giant orbiting space stations, and deep-space vessels setting out to explore the Moon, Mars, and the planets beyond. NASA embraced his vision in 1969 amid the heady triumphs of Project Apollo, retooled it in 1985 for the pro-space Reagan administration, and revived it under successive Presidents Bush in 1989 and 2004. All five times, however, official commitments to a Mars landing within a few decades quickly faded, and ambitious plans were gutted on the twin altars of politics and budgeting. The space shuttle and the ISS were fragments of those aborted plans, salvaged from the wreckage and repurposed as stand-alone projects.

Films like this — exercises in boosterism — need not dwell on this tangled history, but ignoring it entirely is, at best, disingenuous. Great as the medical and engineering challenges of a voyage to Mars may be, the sociopolitical challenges (convincing those with material and financial resources to do it that it is, in fact, worth doing) are, history suggests, just as daunting. Journey to Space, which skims lightly over all three sets of challenges, is best suited to viewers for whom the subject is still new; for those already steeped in the mystique of the Red Planet and the complexities of getting there, there’s the extended cut of The Martian.

RATING 5 / 10