I’m one of those people who’s obsessed with outer space. In college I started watching TV shows like The Universe and documentary series like When We Left Earth, and ever since I’ve devoured anything I can find about the Apollo missions, other planets, spaceships, astronauts, and life beyond our atmosphere. And that extends to science fiction — particularly the sprawling space operas that remind me of the majesty of what’s out there.
These are some of the shows, films, and documentaries about space that I love. If you have any recommendations to share that aren’t here, I’d love to hear them!
When We Left Earth
This six-episode Discovery Channel series focuses on the NASA program of the 60’s, after JFK issued the challenge to go to the moon within the decade:
It then covers NASA’s next missions, including the Challenger disaster, the International Space Station, and the Hubble Space Telescope. What I enjoy most about the show is just how much NASA footage it contains — and it covers all the important details, giving a great overview of NASA if you’re new to all these missions and the evolution of space flight over the decades.
You really feel like you get to know the early astronauts, too. Their bravery at exploring space is inspiring. Back then, even the idea of being outside of Earth’s gravity left scientists wondering if human eyeballs would retain their shape — that’s how new all of this was. Even the training itself was dangerous. The fact that these test pilots were daring enough to risk their lives being pioneers for mankind always inspires me, and I’d recommend this documentary for that reason alone.
This is one of my favorite science fiction movies ever. In a future Earth where a blight is destroying crops and dust storms ravage the planet, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widowed farmer raising his two kids. But he’s also a former NASA pilot, and when he stumbles on a secret mission to find a new habitable planet for mankind, he rejoins.
Interstellar is directed by Christopher Nolan and cowritten with his brother Jonathan, and if you’re familiar with Nolan movies you’ll get an idea of the scale of this thing. It’s atmospheric, a little dark, and the music is haunting and heroic. Apparently theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was a producer and scientific consultant on the film too, which doesn’t surprise me given how intricate the science is in this story.
What I love most, though, are the emotional twists and turns the story takes. There’s a scene between Cooper and his daughter Murphy that always makes me tear up. One of Cooper’s fellow astronauts, played by Anne Hathaway, is motivated in part by a desire to locate a lost love, an astronaut who left to find a habitable planet years earlier and is still out there. Cooper’s crew deal with the challenges of moving through space-time too; while they live out hours on a far-flung planet, literal years are zipping by back on Earth — which means if they make it back home, everyone they know will be either much older or long gone. It’s just beautiful storytelling that’s linked to its setting in space.
Last year my husband and I binge-watched the show Mars, produced by National Geographic. It’s a weird little show that was hard to get into at first, partly because it’s half sci-fi drama and half real-world interviews. Basically, you watch a few scenes of the fictional drama — a group of astronauts flying to Mars for the first time and establishing a colony there — and then switch to watching interviews with scientists, authors, and other interested parties about what it would really be like to go to Mars (most notably Elon Musk of SpaceX).
The magic here is that the scenarios are unlike anything I’ve seen in sci-fi before, because they’re based on real ideas. For instance, after listening to an interview hypothesize about finding water on Mars, guess what happens in the fictional drama? That’s right: water! It’s a little cheesy at first, but in time it becomes genuinely unique.
I found the second season’s drama to be a lot more riveting than the first, as the original scientists who traveled to Mars must contend with a very different set of newcomers: corporate industrialists. I can see this scenario happening, and watching it play out in the story made me feel real anger at the miners who are so reckless with everything the researchers have been working toward for years.
If you’re interested in the future exploration of Mars, I’d recommend this show as an intelligent take on what it could be like, and the challenges we’ll need to overcome to get there and thrive.
This History Channel show came out when I was in college, and it changed my world. I was always a bit of a sci-fi nerd, but I didn’t fall in love with the science of space until I watched this show. There are so many episodes to watch, and each one covers some intriguing topic like the Big Bang, how the Earth might end, light speed, time travel… There’s even an episode about sex in space.
Interviews with scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku make the conversations interesting and easy to understand, offering a great primer on each topic. I remember taking notes, because so many episodes inspired my writing at the time. I was filling up a notebook with ideas for a sci-fi story set a few hundred years in the future, after humanity colonized another solar system. The Universe was part of my research, and I had a blast learning about space for the first time and feeling like I actually understood some of the science.
This movie by Damien Chazelle (of La La Land fame) and written by Josh Singer (who also penned Spotlight and The Post, so he’s amazing) is a character study on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the person we all know now as the first man on the moon. I love the opening scene, which shows Neil as a test pilot, flying to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and then struggling to get back down as his plane literally bounces off the atmosphere. There’s a similarly tense scene later in the film that shows just how terrifying and dangerous being an astronaut is.
The film strikes a nice balance between Neil’s personal life — his marriage, being a father, losing a daughter — and his career with NASA in the 60’s. I especially enjoyed the training scenes, and seeing the camaraderie between the young astronauts as they studied up on spaceflight and competed to lead missions. Because of this balance between the science and the personal story, this is one of those rare movies that could appeal to someone who just wants to watch a good drama as much it appeals to the Apollo nerd in the family.
What are your favorite movies and shows about space? A few others that almost made my list here were The Martian, Cosmos, Moon Machines, and Gravity. I’d love more recommendations too. =)