Final frontier films: the movies that astronauts watch in space

Right, time for a little zero gravity and chill… NASA

Which films would you watch in space? Well, in December last year, just days after British astronaut Tim Peake rocketed to the International Space Station (ISS) in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Star Wars: The Force Awakens appeared on multiplex screens around the world. As the first release of the space opera for more than a decade, this was an eagerly anticipated affair. And Peake and his fellow astronauts were not denied the excitement, watching the film on an HD projector and screen while orbiting 250 miles above the Earth. “What a place to watch it!” Peake tweeted merrily from his perch in the heavens.

The film was a special addition to more than 500 film and television programmes available to the astronauts on the ISS. A freedom of information request recently led to the release of NASA’s complete list. Whether Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS have a similar arrangement is yet unknown, but it’s likely they all share nicely.

In recent years, some astronauts have defied conventional assumptions about life in space, perhaps making it look more recreational than it really is. However, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s music video of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Sunita Williams’ space triathlon or Peake’s “London marathon” in microgravity are exceptions to the rule.

In fact, an astronaut’s average working day is a gruelling 11 hours long and leisure time is limited, with movie watching generally confined to two hours in the evening. Neverthless, the fact that the ISS astronauts tweeted pictures, using a slow internet connection – “worse than dial up” – of them watching Gravity, in which two astronauts are left adrift after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, is testimony both to their love of a good film and their capacity for irony.

Science fiction films, especially space-related ones, are an important part of the audiovisual spread served up by NASA. This includes 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and its sequels, superhero space operas such as Guardians of the Galaxy and, of course, the complete Star Trek movie series.

Space opera

Hadfield took one small step into the world of space fiction by tweeting a message from space to the actor William Shatner, known to millions as Captain Kirk in the TV and film series. That small step became a giant leap when Shatner’s co-actors Leonard Nemoy (Star Trek’s Spock) and George Takei (Star Trek’s Sulu) joined in, followed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon.

This narrative of fact-meeting-fiction-meeting-fact captures sci-fi film’s importance to astronauts, many of whom say that the genre was an early inspiration for their eventual choice of career. Even in our cynical times, the astronaut/scientist, both in real life as well as in sci-fi films, remains an inspiring figure capable of capturing the imaginations of young children, as evidenced by the recent bout of Peakomania in British schools.

Not surprisingly, all three Back To The Future films, featuring the impressionable youngster Marty and his mentor, the eccentric scientist Doc Brown, make it on to NASA’s list. Scientific advancement is, after all, a central pillar of American progress.

If there is a subtext to the principle of selection, it lies in an idealised notion of American national values, as showcased by Hollywood films for more than a century. Across generations, millions have laughed with the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup and sung along with The Sound of Music.

These, and others such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca make the NASA list as much more than remarkable films. They are cultural articulations of the ethos of America as sought to be portrayed by its establishment. This ethos includes the championing of its national power, as well as its much publicised ability to introspect on a national scale through films such as 12 Years A Slave or To Kill a Mockingbird, which also feature in the selection.

The American dream

The great narrative arc of Hollywood film fundamentally reinforces the belief that, its blemishes notwithstanding, there is no country quite like America. Predictable selections, therefore, include films such as The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life which celebrate conservative ideas about American values, reiterating that “there’s no place like home”. The Seven Samurai, later remade as The Magnificent Seven in Hollywood, remains a rare example of a non-English language film on the list.

In the fictional world, the film hero is the most prominent saviour of the Western way of life, and a fascination for all things heroic underlies the selection. Consequently, James Bond appears many times in the list, as does Die Hard’s incorrigible movie cop John Mclane and his television equivalent, the indefatigable Jack Bauer in 24.

Their ancestor, the archetypal American action hero John Wayne appears more than once in Cahill: US Marshall and The Train Robbers. Heroes from antiquity are particularly popular, too, with Ben Hur, Gladiator and Spartacus making the cut, along with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Braveheart. Heroic figures in British royalty are in favour, with both Elizabeth and its sequel making the selection. Superheroes such as Batman and Captain America qualify, too, side by side with contemporary stylised “heroic” narratives by directors Quentin Tarantino and Alfonso Cuaron.

However, empowered characters who question state authority seem to be less popular. Rambo, the disillusioned Vietnam War veteran, is missing from NASA’s list, as is Rocky. Also missing are Thelma and Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, films that are among the greatest American movies ever made, but possibly remain too anti-establishment for NASA’s official endorsement.

Another telling omission is Dirty Harry – once condemned by critic Roger Ebert for its “fascist moral position” – and its four sequels, and it is worth asking whether the protagonist’s outbursts against authority in the fictional world sealed the films’ fate in the real one.

If there is a principle of selection at work behind NASA’s list, then a principle of exclusion seems not far behind. When it comes to film, it seems that a degree of “wholesome censorship” exists in outer space, too.