President John F. Kennedy launched the space race in 1962 with a vow that the United States would put a man on the moon. Now his niece, filmmaker Rory Kennedy, tells the inspiring stories of the women and men of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who reached that goal before going on to take NASA to places JFK never imagined.
Oscar®-nominee Kennedy’s enlightening film follows them to the edge of the universe, the surface of Mars and the bottom of our oceans as she celebrates NASA’s triumphs, mourns its tragedies and affirms the importance of its mission both in space and on Earth.
AFI spoke to Kennedy about her film ABOVE AND BEYOND: NASA’S JOURNEY TO TOMORROW, which is this year’s Centerpiece Screening at AFI DOCS. Kennedy is an AFI DOCS mainstay, having most recently brought her films LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM (2014) and TAKE EVERY WAVE: THE LIFE OF LAIRD HAMILTON (2017) to the festival.
AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
RK: I started making films right out of college. While at Brown University, I wrote a paper on the difficulties that pregnant women face in finding treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. When I graduated, I realized I wanted to turn the paper into a film, and bring these personal stories to a broader audience. This was the genesis for my first documentary feature, WOMEN OF SUBSTANCE, as well as the beginning of my film career.
That said, I’ve always had a deep love and appreciation for documentaries. The majority of my films deal with some of the world’s most pressing concerns including poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights and mental illness. Having grown up in a political family, I am most interested in making films that focus on important social issues— issues that are not getting the mainstream attention they deserve.
AFI: What inspired you to tell this story?
RK: 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of NASA. It seemed like a good time to look back and celebrate the agency’s many accomplishments, as well as look forward to what the next 60 years have in store. Personally, I was inspired by NASA from a very young age. In 1961, my uncle, John F. Kennedy, challenged NASA as an agency and America as a nation to get a man to the moon within the decade. In his speech at Rice University, he said we were to undertake this enormous set of tasks, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And he added that the moon landing would mark “the best of our energies and skills.”
I think at a time when our nation is so divided, ABOVE & BEYOND is a reminder of what can happen when a leader inspires the best in all of us. We really can do great things if we all work together and NASA, perhaps more than any other institution, has demonstrated this over these past six decades. It has truly been an honor for me to help tell their story.
AFI: How did you find the subjects in your film?
RK: We only included people who have worked for or are currently employed by NASA. We wanted ABOVE & BEYOND to speak for NASA from the inside out, and showcase the people who have led this incredible journey. Together, they have worked to help us understand some of life’s most fundamental questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone? We interviewed extraordinary people, including Apollo astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Jim Lovell, ISS astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly and Peggy Whitson, among others. We spoke with the people who developed and launched the Hubble Telescope, as well as the Keppler Spacecraft, and the many extraordinary folks who built and launched the probes, landers and satellites that have helped us understand our solar system and galaxy, including finding evidence of water on Mars. I interviewed many of the dedicated individuals who are leading NASA’s earth science missions, and was able to travel to the far reaches of Earth, including Antarctica and the Arctic.
Part of the attraction to this form is my belief that these kinds of films can reach well beyond the statistics or summary articles, and instead make clear the complexities of a particular subject, while at the same time communicating the real, lived human experience.
AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
RK: NASA has done so much over the last 60 years — it was a challenge to synthesize their accomplishments into one feature length film. As an agency with broad reach, they have many independent initiatives — some relate to the study of Earth; others to understanding our solar system, our galaxy and the universe beyond. NASA launches satellites and rovers, and uses telescopes to look back in time. They developed and operated the Space Shuttle, as well as built the International Space Station. They are working to take us to Mars. So it was difficult to pull all these different, often disparate initiatives together and weave them into a single narrative. Additionally, NASA has an extraordinary archive, which was available to us for the making of this film. This was a huge blessing, but also presented unique challenges. The archive is located in 10 different facilities across the country. At times, the images and moving pictures felt as infinite as the universe itself. Too much of a good thing is not the worse problem to have as a documentary filmmaker, but it was certainly an undertaking to review it all and make sure that we were using the best of the best to bring this stunning story to life.
AFI: What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
RK: I think ABOVE AND BEYOND is an important reminder of what we humans can accomplish when we all work together toward a shared goal. NASA has profoundly expanded human knowledge over the last 60 years — deepening our understanding of our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe. Not only that, it has also taught us an enormous amount about our home planet, having maintained a steady watch over Earth these past six decades. NASA has shown us just how precious and unique this planet really is, and also how vulnerable. Planets changing over time can often become much less friendly to life. NASA has given us the data — facts about present change and a window into future change — and we now have to do our part to take care of planet Earth.
AFI: Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screen your film?
RK: I grew up outside of Washington, DC, so it’s a great pleasure for me to screen ABOVE & BEYOND for my home audience. Added to that, NASA was founded in Washington, DC, in 1958 when Congress passed legislation establishing NASA as the coordinating body of the U.S. space program. NASA’s headquarters are still based there, and Goddard Space Flight Center is located nearby in Greenbelt, Maryland. The film is, in many ways, a celebration of our government at its very best, so what better place to show it than the Capital?
AFI: Why are documentary films important today?
RK: I think people are interested in understanding themselves and the world around them. With so much short-form content, living in a cyber-world of bite-sized entertainment, documentaries are really one of the last formats for comprehensively exploring a subject or issue. Real-life stories help deepen our sense of compassion and empathy for others, as well as increase our understanding of complex social issues. Over the years, documentaries have gotten more and more entertaining with an enormously talented group of filmmakers who have broadened the possibilities of the form. Added to that, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, among other streaming services, have enabled consumers to find the documentaries they are personally interested in, which has also helped increase demand.