Academy Award Nominee and Emmy Winner Rory Kennedy's 'Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow' Takes a Sweeping Look at the Government Agency and its Goals for the Future During its 60th Anniversary
Film Builds on the Long-Standing History of Discovery's NASA Programming And Highlights The Agency's Crucial Role in Tracking the Health of our Planet
Human beings, more than any other species, are driven by an insatiable curiosity, a remarkable ability to wonder. It is a need to know that lies deep within our DNA as we seek to answer some of time's most fundamental questions: Where do we come from? Are we alone? What will become of us?
As NASA celebrates its 60th anniversary, Discovery once again shines a spotlight on the historic institution taking us to the moon, to the surface of Mars, to the outer edge of our solar system and beyond. But more than a moving portrait of NASA's many accomplishments in space, "Above and Beyond" also sheds light on the agency's lesser-known area of focus — the vital role NASA has played in measuring the health of our home planet. However far NASA may travel, its gaze has always returned to Earth — monitoring our seas and skies, our ice and sands — in an ongoing struggle to meet today's great challenge — protecting our planet.
Directed, produced, and narrated by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning Rory Kennedy ("Last Days of Vietnam,") "Above and Beyond: NASA's Journey to Tomorrow" examines the extraordinary ways NASA has changed not only our vision of the universe, but also our planet, and ourselves. The documentary special will air on Discovery in 2018.
In 1961, announcing the moon shot, President Kennedy issued a great challenge, a challenge that in many ways set NASA on its course: "We have given this program a high national priority," President Kennedy said. "Even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us." With "Above and Beyond," filmmaker Rory Kennedy asks: what has become of President Kennedy's faith in human ingenuity, his grand vision and aspirations?
Looking back over the last 60 years and forward to the next, "Above and Beyond" explores NASA's commitment to dreaming big. With wide-ranging access to NASA leaders, scientists, and astronauts, Kennedy goes behind the scenes of the world's greatest space agency. Through interviews with engineers like Adam Steltzner (who led the Mars Curiosity rover mission) and International Space Station (ISS) astronauts like Peggy Whitson (who holds the US record of 665 days in space), the film highlights the next-generation space telescopes, the dazzling prototypes of Mars-bound spacecraft, and the cutting-edge missions to further explore our solar system, galaxy, and larger universe. And yet, even while aiming higher and journeying farther than ever, NASA also continues to point its technology homeward — from the ozone hole to global climate change — in an effort to better understand the past, present, and future health of our planet.
Though it may surprise some, NASA has always explored both space and Earth. As far back as the 1960s, Apollo 8 showcased NASA's ability to inform human perspective. In its mission, that crew traveled 240,000 miles over three days before the dark side of the moon came into view, something humankind had only dreamed about. In "Above and Beyond," Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell describes how, when the spacecraft moved around the moon, revealing for the first time the whole Earth in the distance, he could suddenly see, "the earth as it truly is: a grand oasis in the vastness of space."
Indeed, they had come to explore the moon and instead discovered the earth. From Apollo's Jim Lovell to the Space Shuttle's more contemporary Scott Kelly, astronauts have returned home with a new appreciation for our planet's uniqueness, as well as its incredible fragility. After having spent a year on the ISS (the largest human-made object in space, a scientific laboratory that weighs over 1 million pounds, travels at 17,000 mph and orbits the earth 16 times a day), Kelly states, "If we can do this, we can do anything. We just have to dream it, and dream big, and go do it."
"Above and Beyond" goes on to highlight, beyond human space exploration, the remarkable role played by telescopes and rovers, including Curiosity which landed on Mars to explore whether that planet could have once supported life. While researchers knew from earlier missions that water had previously existed on the surface of Mars, Curiosity was sent to dig deeper, answering if the water had been sweet or salty, acidic or basic — the kind of water humans could have drunk. "Curiosity has answered our question, and that answer is yes," explains Steltzner. "The ancient wet environment, three-and-a-half-billion years ago, when life was first starting here on Earth, Mars was an environment that was habitable for life."
As Ellen Stofan, NASA's Chief Scientist, 2013-2016, explains, "When we look outward, when we understand the planets, when we go out into the universe, we're really still trying to look back at ourselves and say, 'How does our planet work?' That Mars was once habitable, just like earth, and is no longer makes clear how planetary bodies transform.
Now, more than ever, NASA is using its extraordinary tools to look back at Earth from space. If President Kennedy once set NASA's challenge at the moon, Rory Kennedy argues that today the agency's most urgent mission is equally clear — to report back on the health of our own planet. With over 19 different satellites studying the earth, with aircraft and ground teams, NASA can see almost every aspect of the earth's systems from direct measurement, all that data streaming over years and decades. It is a comprehensive global view of an incredibly complicated planet.
From the rapidly melting Antarctica ice caps, to the bleaching and dying of coral reefs, the data collected by NASA is essential to humankind's understanding. Informing our challenge today, NASA offers us a record of how the planet is changing and makes undeniably clear the threat of what is to come.
"Above and Beyond" is directed and produced by Rory Kennedy; produced by Mark Bailey, Clare Tucker and Pat Bischetti, written by Mark Bailey and Don Kleszy. For Discovery: supervising producers, Jon Bardin and Alexandra Moss; executive producer John Hoffman.