Twelve Movies About NASA

By Jennifer Leigh Parker, Special to CNBC

NASA in the Movies

This July, the agent of American space exploration better known as NASA, will launch its last shuttle - marking the final flight for the 30-year program, and quite possibly, the end of an era in film. Worlds beyond our own have served as fodder for a national fascination, most dramatically reflected on the silver screen. Since the first American went into space, filmmakers as well as audiences have embraced the astronaut-as-hero narrative in present, future, and even animated forms. Starting in
Photo: Dieter Spears | Vetta | Getty Images

It's been a busy time for the folks at NASA.

The probe Curiosity set down on Mars, beginning an unprecedented mission of exploration of the Martian surface and adding another line on the space agency's list of achievements. It also reinvigorated space exploration discussions that had died down somewhat following the end of the agency's shuttle program.

Worlds beyond our own have served as fodder for a national fascination, most dramatically reflected on the silver screen. Since the first American went into space, filmmakers as well as audiences have embraced the astronaut-as-hero narrative in present, future, and even animated forms.

Starting in the 1960s, cineastes treated space travel with mysterious, yet fact-based reverence. Over time, however, the screenwriter’s formula involved more fantasy than fact, more humor than reverence.

Have we lost our connection to the cosmos? Click back in time to see 12 movies that chronicle our story of space.

Originally Posted 06 July 2011
By Jennifer LeighParker

Updated: 10 July 2012


Note: All box office data is gross domestic.

Planet 51 (2009)

Box office: $42,194,060 Plot: When Earth astronaut Capt. Chuck Baker arrives on Planet 51 -- a world reminiscent of American suburbia circa 1950 -- he tries to avoid capture, recover his spaceship and make it home safely, all with the help of an empathetic little green being. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel “An alien has ‘invaded’ a provincial and paranoid suburban town. And the alien is us, a NASA astronaut who touches down, bounces out with his American flag…only to realize he’s interru
Photo: Ilion Animation

Box office: $42,194,060

Plot: When Earth astronaut Capt. Chuck Baker arrives on Planet 51—a world reminiscent of American suburbia circa 1950—he tries to avoid capture, recover his spaceship and make it home safely, all with the help of an empathetic little green being.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel

An alien has ‘invaded’ a provincial and paranoid suburban town. And the alien is us, a NASA astronaut who touches down, bounces out with his American flag…only to realize he’s interrupting an alien barbecue.” — Roger Moore, Chicago Tribune

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)

Box office: $4,420,080 Plot: In the decade of 2080, on a lunar colony called Little America, a retired smuggler named Pluto Nash buys a nightclub in order to fulfill a longtime wish. After “Club Pluto” is blown to flaming bits, Nash and his band travel across the moon looking for clues as to who is behind the arson Starring: Eddie Murphy, Jay Mohr and Randy Quaid “Apparently, setting this picture on the moon wasn't enough to help it escape the crushing gravitational pull of a bad script.” – Elvi
Photo: Bruce McBroom | Warner Bros.

Box office: $4,420,080

Plot: In the decade of 2080, on a lunar colony called Little America, a retired smuggler named Pluto Nash buys a nightclub in order to fulfill a longtime wish. After “Club Pluto” is blown to flaming bits, Nash and his band travel across the moon looking for clues as to who is behind the arson.

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Jay Mohr and Randy Quaid

Apparently, setting this picture on the moon wasn't enough to help it escape the crushing gravitational pull of a bad script.” — Elvis Mitchell, New York Times

Red Planet (2000)

Box office: $17,473,245 Plot: In the near future, Earth is dying, and a new colony on Mars could be humanity's only hope. A team of American astronauts, each a specialist in a different field, is making the first manned expedition to the red planet. Starring: Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss “It is supposedly about nothing less than ‘the most important mission of the 21st century,’ finding a new home for humans on Mars after Earth has become terminally polluted. If they're going to up the ante th
Photo: Warner Bros.

Box office: $17,473,245

Plot: In the near future, Earth is dying, and a new colony on Mars could be humanity's only hope. A team of American astronauts, each a specialist in a different field, is making the first manned expedition to the red planet.

Starring: Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss

It is supposedly about nothing less than ‘the most important mission of the 21st century,’ finding a new home for humans on Mars after Earth has become terminally polluted. If they're going to up the ante this much, they'd damn well better follow through.” — Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle

Mission to Mars (2000)

Box Office: $60,874,615
Photo: Touchstone Pictures

Box Office: $60,874,615 million

Plot: When the first manned mission to Mars meets with mysterious disaster, a rescue mission is launched to investigate the tragedy and bring back any survivors.

Starring: Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle

"Mission to Mars" could be called Mr. De Palma's ‘Abyss.’ There's a follow-your-bliss dreaminess here that wouldn't be out of place at a Deepak Chopra seminar or on a Mannheim Steamroller album. The visual design is spectacular, and the scenes on the Martian surface look so real that the picture could have been made on location.” – Elvis Mitchell, New York Times

Space Cowboys (2000)

Box office: $90,454,043 Plot: In 1958, four-hot shot test pilots seem certain to be the first men to go into outer space. However, their leader at NASA prevents their involvement. Flash forward to the present, the foursome are now living a docile life. Yet when an old Russian satellite is about to crash back into the Earth's atmosphere, only the original team can save the day. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland “[Space Cowboys] was made with the avid cooperation of N
Photo: AP

Box office: $90,454,043

Plot: In 1958, four-hot shot test pilots seem certain to be the first men to go into outer space. However, their leader at NASA prevents their involvement. Flash forward to the present, the foursome are now living a docile life. Yet when an old Russian satellite is about to crash back into the Earth's atmosphere, only the original team can save the day.

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland

“[Space Cowboys] was made with the avid cooperation of NASA, and features meticulously accurate scenes shot at the agency's space centers in both Houston and Cape Canaveral, Florida” — Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com

October Sky (1999)

Box office: $32,481,825
Photo: Universal Pictures

Box office: $32,481,825

Plot: This is the true story of Homer Hickam, who became one of the first NASA engineers. Born a coal miner's son in West Virginia, Hickam was inspired by the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, prompting him to take up rocketry against his father’s wishes.

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern

Like the hero of October Sky, I remember the shock that ran through America when the Russians launched Sputnik on Oct. 5, 1957. Like the residents of Coalwood, W.Va., in the movie, I joined the neighbors out on the lawn, peering into the sky with binoculars at a speck of moving light that was fairly easy to see.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)

Box Office: $10,672,566 Plot: Johnny Depp is a NASA flyboy whose Shuttle mission undergoes a glitch. He and his partner are doing a repair job outside the craft when NASA loses contact with them for two minutes. Brought back to Earth in an emergency landing, Depp decides to quit the agency and accept a job with an aeronautics firm in Manhattan. Starring: Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp “Shortly after moving [to Manhattan, the wife] who already feels out of place in the big city, becomes pregnant an
Photo: New Line Cinema

Box Office: $10,672,566

Plot: Johnny Depp is a NASA flyboy whose Shuttle mission undergoes a glitch. He and his partner are doing a repair job outside the craft when NASA loses contact with them for two minutes. Brought back to Earth in an emergency landing, Depp decides to quit the agency and accept a job with an aeronautics firm in Manhattan.

Starring: Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp

Shortly after moving [to Manhattan, the wife] who already feels out of place in the big city, becomes pregnant and begins to suspect her husband is—all together now—Not What He Seems.” – Charles Taylor, Salon.com

Toy Story/"Buzz Lightyear" (1995)

Box Office: $30,593,152 Plot: Cowboy doll Woody is coordinating a reconnaissance mission to find out what presents his owner Andy is getting for his birthday party. Unfortunately for Woody, Andy receives a new spaceman toy, Buzz Lightyear – an astronaut who impresses the other toys and Andy, who starts to like Buzz more than Woody. Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen “Buzz is the most endearing toy in the movie, because he's not in on the joke. He thinks he's a real space ranger, temporarily marooned
Photo: AP

Box Office: $30,593,152

Plot: Cowboy doll Woody is coordinating a reconnaissance mission to find out what presents his owner Andy is getting for his birthday party. Unfortunately for Woody, Andy receives a new spaceman toy, Buzz Lightyear—an astronaut who impresses the other toys and Andy, who starts to like Buzz more than Woody.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

Buzz is the most endearing toy in the movie, because he's not in on the joke. He thinks he's a real space ranger, temporarily marooned during a crucial mission, and he goes desperately to work trying to repair his space ship -- the cardboard box he came in.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Apollo 13 (1995)

Box office: $173,837,410 Plot: From the ill-fated 13th Apollo mission came these words: "Houston, we have a problem." They are the words astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert used to alert Mission Control for help, while stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft. Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon "Apollo 13" never really states its theme, except perhaps [that] the space program was a really extraordinary thing, something to be proud of, and those who
Photo: Universal Pictures

Box office: $173,837,410

Plot: From the ill-fated 13th Apollo mission came these words: "Houston, we have a problem." They are the words astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert used to alert Mission Control for help, while stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon

"Apollo 13" never really states its theme, except perhaps [that] the space program was a really extraordinary thing, something to be proud of, and those who went into space were not just "heroes," which is a cliché, but brave and resourceful.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Space Camp (1986)

Box Office: $9,697,739 Plot: The aspiring astronauts of a space camp find themselves in space for real when their shuttle is accidently launched into orbit. Starring: Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson and Kelly Preston “The great looming presence all through this movie is the memory of the Challenger destroying itself in a clear, blue sky.” - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Photo: ABC Motion Pictures

Box Office: $9,697,739

Plot: The aspiring astronauts of a space camp find themselves in space for real when their shuttle is accidently launched into orbit.

Starring: Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson and Kelly Preston

The great looming presence all through this movie is the memory of the Challenger destroying itself in a clear, blue sky.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The Right Stuff (1983)

Box Office: $21,500,000 Plot: By flying higher and faster than any other man had ever dared before, Chuck Yeager set the pace for a new breed of hero. This is the true story of how he broke the sound barrier and paved the way for the first seven Mercury astronauts. Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris “The astronauts were more than pilots; they were a public-relations image, and the movie shows sincere, smooth-talking John Glenn becoming their unofficial spokesman.” – Roger Ebert, Ch
Photo: Ladd Company

Box Office: $21,500,000

Plot: By flying higher and faster than any other man had ever dared before, Chuck Yeager set the pace for a new breed of hero. This is the true story of how he broke the sound barrier and paved the way for the first seven Mercury astronauts.

Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris

The astronauts were more than pilots; they were a public-relations image, and the movie shows sincere, smooth-talking John Glenn becoming their unofficial spokesman.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Box Office: $56,700,000 Plot: A race begins between a computer and an astronaut to reach a mysterious monolith placed on the moon. The winner will achieve the next step in evolution. Starring: Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood “This is a space-based movie without zooming spaceships, laser shootouts, or explosions. The result is a cold, majestic motion picture, a movie that seeks to remind us of the vastness of space and our relatively insignificant place in it.” – James Berardinelli, reelviews.net
Photo: Everett Collection

Box Office: $56,700,000 million

Plot: A race begins between a computer and an astronaut to reach a mysterious monolith placed on the moon. The winner will achieve the next step in evolution.

Starring: Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood

This is a space-based movie without zooming spaceships, laser shootouts, or explosions. The result is a cold, majestic motion picture, a movie that seeks to remind us of the vastness of space and our relatively insignificant place in it.” – James Berardinelli, reelviews.net