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Five years ago, I wrote a piece about Interstellar and the death of the astronaut myth. This year, re-watching a bunch of space movies for work purposes, I found myself revisiting not just Interstellar and that piece but the idea of the astronaut myth itself.
The three guys up there embody it. Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell, played with three different types of brilliance by the late Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks, were the crew of Apollo 13. Trapped in an ailing spaceship and with no choice but to slingshot around the Moon before coming home, the three men were the tip of an exhausted, blunted, terrified spear. The whole of NASA, it seemed, rose up to solve problems and keep them alive. It worked too, and Apollo 13 is far more synonymous now with successful problem solving than near tragedy. That’s because everyone involve worked the problem in front of them, solved issues as a team and embodied the astronaut myth to a tee. Modest, softly spoken, brilliant, relentless. White. Male.
I’m not criticizing them, or the people who brought them home, or Ron Howard’s movie about the incident. That’s on the re-watch list too and it will wreck me just as it always does at one specific moment. Gene Kranz, the crewcut pitbull of a flight director played by Ed Harris, is the engine of the movie. He does not stop moving, thinking or talking until he knows for sure the crew are safe. Then, in a moment that got Harris an Oscar in a kinder world, he sits down and we see a week’s worth of terror and care hit him all at once. Or you do, because by that time I’ve become a living snot bubble.
These are amazing humans, that’s undeniable. But what’s also undeniable is how fiction has moved the astronaut on, even as history has dawdled.
There is a lot to recommend Interstellar. It’s Matthew Mcconaughey’s best work by some margiin, TARS and CASE the robots are brilliant and the film treats space travel as something akin to cthonic horror. Everything is vast and wants to kill you. Or it would if it could sense something so insignificant.
That’s rarely more true than with Doctor Amelia Brand. Played with similar Oscar-worthy intelligence by Anne Hathaway, Brand burns so brightly with her belief in the myth you could read by it. Almost her first line is ‘We’re NASA’, delivered the way Clarice Starling says ‘FBI’. There’s power behind it, the weight of the myth lined up behind this brilliant, driven woman who is going to help save us even if it takes everything.
And it does. Brand loses almost every colleague, every friend, the trust she has in her father and is left with nothing but the mission. The last time this happened, as we see in the film, it drove the astronaut mad. Doctor Mann, played with excellently judged self-righteousness by Matt Damon, is an empty spacesuit. He just wants to survive and tells himself the mission is the most important thing, even as he dooms it. Brand, by contrast, wants nothing more than to be reunited with her partner, Doctor Edmunds. After sacrificing everything to reach his world, she discovers he’s been killed.
And does the job anyway.
This, and later when we see Coop and TARS steal a Ranger to come find her, is what the astronaut myth has evolved into at this point: an individual at peace with being out on their own, but acutely aware of how they need other people and what happens when those connections are taken away.
There is absolutely a reading of Interstellar that says the movie punishes Brand for daring to feel. I disagree with it, but I see it. I also see her as using the astronaut myth less as something she wears on her chest, and more as a shield, a shelter. She buries Edmunds and gets back to work because that’s what astronauts do. Serve as a living foundation for others to build on.
And speaking of Mr. Damon…
Mark Watney, lead character of The Martian, takes Coop and Brand’s hard won individuality and grows a beard around it while quoting maritime law. Watney is Damon at his likable shlubby best, a man whose easy Bostonian charm and clear intellect endears him to his crew mates but does nothing to stop the accident that leaves him behind on Mars.
How he survives, and what he does, tells us everything about the astronaut at this stage in western fiction. Watney, to use his phrase, sciences the shit out of the red planet: growing food, rationing what he has and working out a grueling but effective way to get off world. He continually adapts, continually survives and he has no manner of luck at all. The cthonic horror of Interstellar is dustier but no less present here and some of the movie’s best moments are it’s quietest and bleakest. A grief stricken Watney in his frost-burnt nursery. Watney cowering in bed from a terrifying Martian sandstorm, the weight of his solitude on the planet pressing down harder than the wind ever could.
But two things speak to Watney as an evolution of the astronaut myth. The first is the very real consequences of what happened to him. The film’s epilogue shows us where the characters are a few years down the line. Watney’s crew, with an exception or two, have retired or been grounded and are watching the launch the same way a retired athlete watches a championship game: excited, envious, terrified. No one gets a free ride, even when it involves saving someone’s life and that untidiness is a welcome and emotionally nuanced touch for this kind of story.
It also speaks to what Watney’s doing: teaching astronaut candidates how to survive. This is a man who has gone to the literal edge of human endurance and is acutely aware of how many people he owes his life to. He pays that debt back the smartest way he can, by teaching others to survive. And never leaving the planet again. The astronaut has come home and, instead of finding somewhere else to excel, has decided to help others get where he’s been. Coop, Brand and TARS would be proud.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century it seems entirely appropriate that astronauts, now, are less pathfinders and more community builders. The steely eyed missile men of the past are just that, of the past and with the new eyes the new century offers us we can see them in a different light even as we build their successors. First Man did this with great success for Neil Armstrong. Ad Astra did it with far less success, for me at least, even as it handed Brad Pitt one of the best roles he’s had in years.
But it’s in prose where we’re really starting to see these changes take effect. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is the start of an intensely complex and methodical re-imagining of the space race as one for global survival, with no time for the barriers of sexism and race. The first two books, and various short stories, are out now and I’d encourage you to read them.
Likewise David Wellington’s The Last Astronaut explores the cost of human loss and the collapse of crewed spaceflight even as first contact begins to take place. Elsewhere, novels like Katie Khan’s Hold Back The Stars and Temi Oh’s Do You Dream of Terra-Two? use astronauts and space travel as a canvas to explore memory, bereavement and hope. In every case the astronauts are a clear evolution of the men of the Apollo program and those who came before. In every case the astronauts are diverse, different, unique and human.
These stories and so many others have put us inside the heads of these extraordinary people and shown us perhaps the last things we expected: the familiar and the exceptional. Familiar in that these character types are totemic, almost elemental. Exceptional in that, even under the suit, the training, the mission and the danger, they’re us. Human. Fragile. Brilliant.