One of the biggest draws towards science fiction is its ability to elicit a sense of wonder, a feeling that the impossible is achievable. But sometimes the genre takes such leaps (especially when it comes to outer space) that for the incredulous, it becomes unapproachable. A sense of wonder, however, does not have to be restricted to scifi. In fact, fiction need play no part in it. Welcome to the world of real-life docudramas, stories about actual people and events that intersect with many disciplines, including the science of space. But don’t let the science scare you: Although space figures into the plot, at their core, these three movie are showcases of human spirit and determination — proof positive that the impossible is obtainable, and that our dreams are within our grasp.
October Sky (1999)
Based on the memoir of NASA engineer Homer Hickam, October Sky is about one boy’s desire to follow his dream and go beyond the life that is handed him. Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, where the only hope of doing more with your life than mining is to get a football scholarship. But one October night, Homer (not a great football player) watches the Soviet satellite Sputnik streak across the sky, and gets bitten by the rocketry bug. Enlisting the help of friends and his teacher (Laura Dern), Homer begins building his own missiles, hoping to win the science fair and, possibly, a college scholarship of his own. Through determination and spirit, Homer gives hope to himself, to his community, and perhaps most importantly, to his father — the coal mine supervisor who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. There’s no better example of a movie that encourages you to follow your dreams.
The Right Stuff (1983)
While Homer Hickam was busy watching Sputnik, America was falling behind in the space race. Philip Kaufman’s 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book follows the group of high-speed test pilots whose job it was to catch us up: They would go on to become astronauts in America’s first manned space program, the Mercury Project. The movie highlights not only the dangers of space travel, but also the lives of these astronauts and their families. While it chronicles America’s push into space (including some controversial events over what happened with Gus Grissom’s infamous “panicky” splashdown and his subsequent shunning by NASA), the real drama comes from the characters it portrays. The Mercury Seven astronauts were heroic daredevils, brave men who were ambitious but fallible; in short, they were human. They show us that with perseverance and resolve, mankind (not just Americans) can achieve almost anything.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The space race didn’t end with putting Americans into space. In 1961 President Kennedy set our sights on the moon, which is why in 1995, Ron Howard was able to release an acclaimed movie that documented NASA’s ill-fated 1970 lunar mission. It started with little fanfare (TV newscaster referred to it as “just another space mission”) but three days into the flight, a liquid oxygen tank ruptured, threatening the craft’s power supply and causing it to lose precious oxygen. The movie portrays a piece of history that needs no dramatic license to make interesting. Astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) met the disastrous situation with spectacularly level heads. Meanwhile the ground crew at Mission Control (led in the movie by The Right Stuff‘s Ed Harris, of all people) exhibited remarkable adaptability to the situation, making tough decisions quickly to get the men home alive. Apollo 13 is a testament to the determination of mankind and the value of human life.