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'Above and Beyond': Rory Kennedy on her new film, NASA's 60th and the moonshot needed to save Earth

October 12, 2018

— When director Rory Kennedy set out to make a documentary about NASA's first 60 years of space exploration, she did not expect that her focus would ultimately turn back towards Earth.

Kennedy, the niece of President of John F. Kennedy, has delivered in "Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow" an informative and engaging look at how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has not only reached out into our solar system (and, as the title suggests, beyond) since 1958, but has also revealed the changing state of our home planet.

"I very much wanted to make a film that celebrated NASA and all of its many accomplishments," said Kennedy in an interview with collectSPACE. "I grew up in the aftermath of the Apollo program and with the excitement of sending somebody to the moon, what the implications of that was, and the thrill of that effort. And so I was excited to look back and make a film that hopefully reminds people today of all NASA has done and continues to do."

"It was over the course of doing the interviews for the film and understanding NASA better that I came to really appreciate what it was telling us about the health of this planet," she said.

"Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow" debuts on Saturday (Oct. 13) at 9 p.m. EDT on Discovery Channel and Science Channel. collectSPACE spoke with Kennedy about the film, her personal connections to NASA's history and what she has come to see as the space agency's next "moonshot."

Above and Beyond. Click to enlarge and view in a new window. (Discovery Channel)

collectSPACE (cS): You have an obvious family connection to NASA's history, but what are your earliest memories of the space program? How closely did you follow NASA's activities while growing up?

Rory Kennedy (Kennedy): I was aware from a very young age of NASA and Jack's [JFK's] vision to get us to the moon and that was certainly a very proud moment for our family.

I grew up in a house where we had great admiration for astronauts. John Glenn was good friends with my parents and would come to the house often. He did campaigning for my father, Robert Kennedy, and was somebody who was kind of, excuse the phrasing, in our orbit. And we would watch films about astronauts and celebrate astronauts as they were heroes.

It was mostly in that that I felt most connected to NASA. I wasn't a space geek. I wasn't obsessed with space, but I have always had an admiration for NASA and for the astronauts and for the people who go to space for what's to be learned by going.

cS: It was said that you spoke with 45 scientists, engineers, astronauts and other NASA personnel and officials to put together this documentary. Was there one more person from across NASA's 60-year history that you wanted to interview but could not, as a result of him or her being dead or otherwise was not available?

Kennedy: John Glenn. He unfortunately died during the early phases of the making of this film. I was hoping to interview him and was sorry I wasn't able to do that. But we were able to interview a lot of astronauts who work at NASA now and people like Jim Lovell who was on the Apollo missions.

Also, obviously, Neil Armstrong would have been nice to interview, but that wasn't possible.

cS: But you do include Armstrong in the film through the use of an audio clip at one point.

Kennedy: Yes, because I wanted his voice in the film and I thought it was nice in that moment where we do a montage and have people looking back at Earth. He's such an icon and hero of the space race and the first man to walk on the moon, so it would have been nice to include him, but we represent his story.

cS: You did speak with a number of other astronauts, including Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson, and they comment in the film about seeing Earth from space. Is that how "Above and Beyond" came to be as much a story about Earth as it is a retrospective on NASA's 60 years?

Kennedy: All of the astronauts talked about that moment of going up into space, looking back at Earth and feeling this connection to our planet, the preciousness of our planet and seeing that thin atmosphere that protects us from the vacuum of space.

And then, from talking with the scientists who are focused on the Earth science missions came the understanding that we were doing a good amount of damage to Earth through the human release of carbons. And that science was methodical and iron-clad and factual and very concerning.

And so with a deeper understanding of that, the film kind of drew that in as a natural narrative arc.

cS: There is a quote from Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders that you do not include in the film, but that you cited in your recent editorial for The New York Times: "We came all this way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." From what you learned making "Above and Beyond" and from your understanding of space history, do you think we would be as aware of our changing environment today had we not gone to the moon?

Kennedy: I don't think we would. I don't think we would have the understanding of what was happening on Earth if we hadn't gone to the moon. It is having that perspective, of having a little distance from our planet, which helps us understand how precious our planet is. And that's important.

And then on the very practical level, it is because the moonshot was such a huge part of the direction our country was going at that time — it was 5 percent of the overall budget — and we invested a huge amount in the infrastructure of NASA, that we have been able to make use of that ever since, even though we haven't invested at that same level since. As a result, I think is has been easier to continue exploring and applying that same infrastructure to the study of Earth.

cS: Looking ahead at the next 60 years, NASA is currently working on a return to the moon and then plans to continue on to Mars. Given how the Apollo missions changed our perspective about Earth, do you see that happening again as we go back to the moon? Or do you think NASA's should be focused on Earth from the start?

Kennedy: With this recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report that came out and the understanding I now have, having been with NASA these last couple of years, the priority really has to be about the climate change on this planet and what to do about it, because there's such an urgency. We have such a small window to deal with it, which is really just the next 12 years and then it's going to be too late. So it's either now or never, and I feel like we need to focus on getting ourselves in a much healthier place on planet Earth.

cS: That United Nations' report described the effort that will be needed over the next 12 years — a little more than a decade — as having "no documented historical precedent." Do you think there are lessons that can be applied from your uncle's "within this decade" moonshot goal?

Kennedy: For me, part of the experience of going back through NASA's history is appreciating the importance of leadership.

You see it at that moment [in 1961] when Jack is giving that speech at Rice University and he talks about getting to the moon within the decade. That we're going to do it. We don't know what benefits await us and we're going to do it anyway because it's just our natural curiosity and we're going to go out into the stars and we're going to learn things that we didn't even know we didn't know.

And that is aspirational. It is pulling us. It is tapping into the best in all of us. And it's saying there is going to be great risk. And there is going to be loss. And we're still going do it. It's that charge, it's that leadership, it's that we're going into battle now to do something that's more important than us as individuals.

I'm not seeing that leadership today. I'm ready to go to battle. I'm ready to go fight that fight. But it's very hard to do it without leadership. So there's an opportunity, a fantastic opportunity for somebody to step into that role. And I am hopeful that somebody will.

cS: So do you hope, in addition to celebrating NASA's 60th and being entertaining that "Above and Beyond" can serve as a rallying call to save the planet?

Kennedy: There is no political agenda in this film. It is a film that only presents the facts. There is nothing sensationalist about it. There are no words used to ignite fear in some untethered way. There are only the facts.

The facts about what's happening to Earth are conveyed in the film, along with the facts of what we're learning about our solar system and what Hubble is doing and all sorts of exciting, aspirational ventures that NASA is embarking on. It is within that context that this information is conveyed.


Poster art for director Rory Kennedy's documentary, "Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow." (Discovery)


Director Rory Kennedy, niece of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy, also produced and narrates "Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow." (Discovery)


A still from director Rory Kennedy's "Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow" shows NASA's Earth science missions in orbit around the planet. (Discovery)


"Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow" is timed to coincide with the space agency's 60th anniversary. (NASA)

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