Portions of this were published previously in the March 3, 2019, article “Want More After ‘Apollo 11’? Here Are 5 Space Documentaries to Stream.”
Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Their mission, Apollo 11, was the culmination of over a decade of space exploration by the United States and the Soviet Union: a “space race” that captivated the world, introducing laypeople to concepts in advanced rocketry and astrophysics while producing images and moments that still awe.
In the decades since, filmmakers have revisited the heyday of space travel in documentaries and dramatizations, trying to put these remarkable achievements into their proper human context. In honor of the Apollo 11 anniversary — an event depicted recently in the feature film “First Man” and the documentary “Apollo 11” — here are 11 of the best movies about real-life space exploration, all available to stream.
‘The Right Stuff’ (1983)
Tom Wolfe’s lively 1979 nonfiction best seller, “The Right Stuff,” about NASA’s “Mercury Seven” — America’s first astronauts — is at once mythopoetic and lightly satirical. The writer-director Philip Kaufman adapted the book into an equally energetic and sly movie, with an outstanding cast that includes Ed Harris as John Glenn, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard and Sam Shepard as the pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager. “The Right Stuff” captures the boys’ club quality of early outer-space exploration and shows how these cocky adventurers fought to retain their dignity and humanity amid the red tape and media frenzy.
‘For All Mankind’ (1989)
The gold standard for NASA documentaries, this Oscar-nominated 1989 film is rich with the alien wonder of a trip to the moon. The director Al Reinert was granted access to footage shot by astronauts during the various Apollo missions, and he and his editors (led by Susan Korda) cut them into an approximation of a single voyage, with a focus on moments that are eerie and awesome. With its score by the ambient music pioneers Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois — and narration provided by the original Mission Control audio recordings, combined with reflective astronaut interviews — “For All Mankind” evokes the grand science-fiction adventure of Apollo.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in “Apollo 13,” playing Commander Jim Lovell, who kept his cool and used his engineering know-how to help prevent a trouble-plagued lunar mission from turning into a tragedy. Gary Sinise and Ed Harris play two of Lovell’s NASA colleagues, busily crunching numbers and brainstorming out-of-the-box solutions at Mission Control. Because this is a well-known true story about astronauts who survived a major equipment malfunction, the movie is not exactly a nail-biter. But it is an enormously entertaining and inspiring tribute to scientific acumen, and to grounded professionalism.
‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the public faces of NASA tended to be white men. Then Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book, “Hidden Figures” — and its movie adaptation — diversified the story, offering the true accounts of three black women in the segregation-era South who provided technical and engineering support to the early NASA missions. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play the women, in a film that conveys the injustices and indignities of racism but also honors the phenomenal collaborative project that was the American space program.
‘The Last Man on the Moon’ (2016)
The story of the final Apollo moon mission — and how it changed the life of its commander, Eugene Cernan — is as powerful in its way as the better-known saga of Apollo 11. “The Last Man on the Moon” covers the public’s growing frustration with the expense of the space program circa 1972. And it also gets into the technical complexities of that last trip and how an astronaut’s job conflicts with family life. The film doesn’t lack for great lunar footage, either. Apollo 17 had access to color video cameras far beyond what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked with, and the images Cernan and his crew captured on the moon are stunning in their clarity.
‘The Farthest’ (2017)
When NASA launched its two deep-space Voyager probes in 1977, the missions sparked conversations among scientists, artists, philosophers and ordinary people, all wondering what information about Earth should be sent out into the universe, and what might come back. The director Emer Reynolds’s documentary “The Farthest” describes the work that went into crafting these enduring marvels of mid-70s technology, which are still zooming away. The film is a reminder of the idealism and optimism of the people who worked in the space program over 40 years ago, and it serves as a call to recapture their spirit and ingenuity.
‘The Mars Generation’ (2017)
How to watch: Stream it on Netflix.
Manned space exploration has slowed lately, but the nonprofit organization the Mars Generation has been working since 2015 to keep the next wave of astronauts and rocket scientists ready anyway. The documentary “The Mars Generation” introduces some brilliant, space-obsessed teenagers who take part in special camps designed to simulate what it might be like to travel to and even live on Mars. These kids are sometimes socially awkward, but they’re always sweetly earnest. It’s heartwarming to watch them work together toward a goal they may never achieve — unless the public broadly supports another big, expensive project like the Apollo missions.
‘Salyut 7’ (2017)
This Russian production (with English subtitles) is often tagged as the Soviet Apollo 13, which is an apt description — not just because it has the dazzling digital effects of a Hollywood blockbuster but also because it is about how courage and brains helped some dedicated cosmonauts and technicians save a dying space station in 1985. Don’t expect anything like the recent HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,” criticizing the entropic last days of Soviet-style socialism. “Salyut 7” is more rousing, focusing on daring spacewalks and clever problem-solving. It is also one of the few big-budget movies about the Russian space program, joining the 2013 biopic “Gagarin: First in Space” and the 2017 docudrama “Age of Pioneers.”
‘Mercury 13’ (2018)
How to watch: Stream it on Netflix.
In 1960, the NASA adviser Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II began an experiment to see if ace female pilots could endure the series of physical and mental challenges he had originally devised for the Mercury Seven. He discovered that some women scored highly on the tests, prompting the privately funded “Woman in Space” program to begin petitioning the media and the United States government, arguing that America needed to overcome its deep-rooted sexism in order to compete with the Soviets. The documentary “Mercury 13” features interviews with some of these accomplished pilots and scientists, many of whom remain certain that the space program — and perhaps the culture — might have been different if NASA had been more open-minded.
‘First Man’ (2018)
A gripping “you are there” dramatization of the first manned lunar landing doubles as a moving character sketch, depicting the deeper motivations of the outwardly stoic Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong, who signed up for NASA’s moon program while still racked with grief over the death of his toddler daughter. In “First Man,” the Oscar-winning “La La Land” director, Damien Chazelle, and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer take an intimate and impressionistic approach to the Apollo 11 story, letting audiences share Armstrong’s experiences: patiently enduring NASA’s competitive culture in order to get the chance to sit in a cramped, rickety space capsule.
‘Apollo 11’ (2019)
For the documentary “Apollo 11,” the director Todd Douglas Miller and a team of archivists and editors found rare footage of the original manned lunar landing mission and compiled it into “Apollo 11”: an immersive and uplifting record of the voyage, from launch to splashdown, with no narration or interviews. The film lets audiences feel like part of the action, whether they’re watching the rocket launch among the crowds, hanging out in Mission Control or sitting next to Neil Armstrong, discovering the wonders of the moon.