Technology, History, and Place


Collective memory and space movies

Not very many films have been made about real-life space travel. Flying a rocket into space is always dangerous, but it usually doesn’t make for good story material. Spaceflight is clinical, precise, and often boring. It offers filmmakers little in the way of conflict. Something goes wrong on every space mission, but the vast majority of them end happily. Fictional space films set in the near-future and using recognizable hardware usually over-compensate for the relative safety of space travel by killing off large numbers of astronauts in their stories. (Most recent example: Gravity [2013].)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Let’s take a look about two non-fiction space films that cover a similar subject from very different angles: The Right Stuff (1983) and Hidden Figures (2016). The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book by the same name. It is a long, sprawling epic about flight testing and the beginning of NASA’s space program in the 1960s. Although the book has a more serious, reflective tone, the movie Right Stuff is written almost like a cartoon, with the paparazzi and Vice President Johnson being especially over-the-top. There are many factual inaccuracies in the movie, but it is also quite fun to watch for the most part. The movie was hugely influential for developing the visual language of spaceflight and heroism in a high-tech era.

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

In the Right Stuff book, Tom Wolfe explored the masculine world of flight-testing and spaceflight, and tried to understand how and why the early astronauts were made into heroes. The movie is less self-aware, instead taking the astronauts’ heroism at face-value. It un-self-consciously portrays a sexist, racist time, and some parts are hard to watch now.

A completely different perspective is given by the recent Hidden Figures. While The Right Stuff wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test—and forget about portrayals of people of color in it—Hidden Figures is about three African-American women working at NASA Langley in Virginia in the early sixties. The characters (composites of actual women whose factual stories are explored in a book by the same name) perform the calculations that allow the first Americans to fly into space and return home safely.

The black computers of Hidden Figures in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

The human computers of Hidden Figures watching a space mission in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures is very much a product of its time, when Americans are being more reflective about race and gender inequalities. The story of black human computers (as the characters of Hidden Figures were called) would never have been told in a major feature film in 1983, much less in the early sixties. The film’s approach to race is a little sentimental, but overall I thought the movie was very well written and a good watch.

Apart from portraying social dynamics very differently from each other, the films also diverge in their portrayals of the technology of early space travel itself. In this respect, the otherwise cartoonish Right Stuff is much more accurate than Hidden Figures. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because it portrayed events that were much more in living memory in 1983 than in 2016. More than half of Americans alive in the early eighties would have remembered the early sixties, but a much smaller portion of the population would have remembered back that far by the mid-2010s.

Living memory of the early space age, combined with strategic use of stock footage to save production costs, meant that The Right Stuff faithfully portrayed the Mercury spacecraft, pressure suits, buildings, and control equipment of the era.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreate early NASA publicity photographs.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreating an early NASA publicity photograph. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

Hidden Figures didn’t need to be as faithful. Several times while watching it, I suppressed a groan in response to inaccurate set design or portrayal of some other aspect of the technology. (The launch gantry for the Mercury-Atlas rocket was especially unfaithful to the original.) The filmmakers even depended on their audience’s not knowing the technology. At the beginning of the movie, the flight of a CGI Russian rocket is intercut with NASA engineers at ground control. The audience is supposed to think that this is a NASA rocket, until at the end of the scene the rocket rolls and—surprise!—there is a big hammer-and-sickle on the other side. (The surprise was lost on me because I recognized it as a Russian rocket from the start. The filmmakers were depending on most of their viewers’ not having built model rockets of that design as kids.) In reality, the Soviet rockets of the time didn’t have such big hammer-and-sickles on them, but the filmmakers needed to add this detail so the audience would know what they were looking at.

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The further we get from historical events, the more our collective memory of them becomes fuzzy. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because the events it was portraying were more in living memory. Hidden Figures didn’t need to be that accurate, and it even needed to change some details in order to tell things to the audience that The Right Stuff’s audience would simply have known.

India’s launch into space activity

On the evening of November 21, 1963, a two-stage Nike-Apache rocket shot skyward from Thumba, a spot on the Malabar Coast of southern India. The rocket carried a sodium-vapor experiment that produced a cloud as the rocket ascended. The zigzag shape of the cloud indicated the prevailing winds at different altitudes. Observers at stations as far as 250 km (155 mi) away reported spotting the cloud with the naked eye.1

It was the first launch of a research rocket in India—a nation that would go on to develop its own indigenous satellite launchers. But in 1963, India still had the better part of two decades to go before its first successful satellite launch with the SLV-3 booster. India’s first research rocket launch was a cooperative effort with the United States and France. The American space agency NASA provided the Nike-Apache rocket, which was based on the first stage of a retired surface-to-air missile. France’s CNES provided the sodium-vapor experiment. As Homi Bhabha, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, remarked after the launch, “The NASA has launched us into space activity. We hope this is the beginning of increasing and continuing cooperation between India and the US.”2

As part of the sounding rocket program, NASA brought a small team of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States for training at the agency’s Langley, Goddard, and Wallops Island facilities. One of the men on this team was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who would gain distinction from his later work on Indian space launchers and missiles, then cap off his career with a term as President of India. At NASA, the team received basic technical training for assembling imported rockets, launching, tracking, and data acquisition. Their hosts at NASA did not give them any information about building their own rockets. The Nike-Apache launch in India is a case of the transfer of a technological artifact (in this case, a rocket), but not the knowledge of how it was made. It would ultimately be the French who passed knowledge about rocket construction on to the Indian program, when they provided for the license manufacture of their Centaure rocket in India.3

The launch of a NASA rocket was an example of especially close Indo-American technical cooperation in the early independence period. That same month, the US Air Force offered training to the Indian Air Force on portable radar sets that the American government had donated to India. The Nike-Apache and its launching equipment likely came to India on one of the same cargo planes that brought supplies for Exercise Shiksha, as the joint air exercise was called. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the United States would continue to offer technical aid to India on programs as diverse as agriculture, public health, and power generation. But except for the period around Exercise Shiksha, the United States hoped to avoid alienating its ally Pakistan by keeping its distance from any Indian programs with a clear military application. Despite Dr. Bhabha’s hopes for increasing Indo-American cooperation, rocketry had an especially obvious military application. Thus it would be the French, rather than the Americans, who would pass knowledge of rocket construction on to India.

  1. Gopal Raj, Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme (New Delhi: Viking, 2000), 16-17. []
  2. “India fires first rocket for space research,” Hindustan Times, November 22, 1963. []
  3. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with Arun Tiwari, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 1999), 37-9; Raj, Reach for the Stars, 32. Note that the license-production of French rockets was only a part of Indian rocket development. There was also a parallel program of Indian-designed sounding rockets, known as Rohini. Knowledge from Rohini as well as Centaure was applied in the SLV-3 program. []

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén