“We have given this programme a high national priority, even though I realise that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.”
It’s been nearly 60 years since US President’s John F. Kennedy’s impassioned speech about the space race, which helped set Nasa on its course - but his vision and his words about the unknown nature of space still ring true today.
Now, to celebrate Nasa’s 60th anniversary on October 1, his niece, Oscar-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy (daughter of the late US senator Bobby Kennedy), has created a one-off documentary about the American space agency and all the incredible work it has achieved in space exploration.
You can watch Above & Beyond: Nasa’s Journey to Tomorrow on Sunday, 14 October on Discovery - BT channel 322/376 HD.
Rory spoke to us about her new documentary, the challenges she faced in the project, and why her late uncle was the inspiration for her to sign up and continue his legacy…
1. Could you explain in a few sentences what Above & Beyond: Nasa’s Journey to Tomorrow is about?
It’s about Nasa, looking back over the last 60 years - it’s the 60th anniversary of Nasa on October 1 - so really it’s a celebration of all that Nasa has accomplished over the last six decades and also the new initiatives it’s embarking on now.
2. How did the show come about, was it because of the 60th anniversary of Nasa?
Yes, it was the 60th anniversary that really inspired the show, and it seemed that it was a fine time to look back at this institution.
I do think that Nasa more than any other institution in history - not to overstate it, but I think it’s true - that over the last 60 years has had more breakthroughs and understandings in terms of our knowledge of what’s going on in the solar system, and the galaxy and our universe, and also the health of our own planet than any other institution.
It was exciting for me to look back on all that it’s done and all that we’ve learnt from it.
3. How welcoming were Nasa in this project?
They were great, they accepted me with open arms and opened all the doors to both their extraordinary archive material. We probably did 45 interviews for the film with a range of astronauts, scientists, explorers, innovators, really extraordinary people, and we had access to everybody we wanted to speak with. So it was a great experience for me.
4. How much archive material did you have to go through for this project?
The archive was a huge part of our efforts, and I had a whole archive team because there are so many images that have come out of the exploration that Nasa has done, really breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
So I wanted that experience to translate for our audiences, so we really worked hard on the archive part [of the project].
The challenge was that Nasa actually has 10 different facilities across the United States, and each facility has its own archive house, so it was certainly a challenge, but it was a big priority of mine so we really spent a lot of time going through those images.
Honestly it felt like the role of a curator on some level, in terms of what I was doing to really pull out the best [bits].
5. Did you face any other challenges in making this project?
It’s going back over 60 years and there are a lot of disparate stories that Nasa has engaged in, working over so many decade.
But also the projects like the International Space Station is one storyline, the space shuttles and what they were doing is another storyline, what the Hubble and Kepler spacecraft, and other telescopes, the Deep Space Network, they’re all kind of disparate stories, so to pull them all together in one film and make it feel unified was a bit of a challenge.
Then of course all of their efforts with earth science and understanding this planet. So I would say that was a challenge just in terms of the structure of the film, but I think we pulled it off.
6. How did you choose which subjects to speak to in the film?
I did a lot of work in getting my head around all the things that Nasa has done, and having a sense throughout that of what I thought were the most exciting initiatives, and impactful and influential, and then also the ones that were associated with extraordinary images and I wanted that to be part of the experience.
Then it was a case of honing down of who would be the best storytellers, which I tried to focus on the people who were directly involved in those initiatives, so not focusing as much on historians or people who were one step removed but really people who oversaw or who were directly involved in these initiatives.
7. What would your father (the late US senator Bobby Kennedy) and uncle (the late US President John F. Kennedy) make of this project?
I don’t really like to put words in their mouths but I would say that I was certainly influenced to do this film, in part because I do have a sense of loyalty to Nasa and the work that they did with my uncle, John F. Kennedy, to get us to the moon.
He clearly had the vision and the leadership to lay out the plan, but they build the rockets that got us there, and got us back more importantly.
I’m very proud of my uncle and so many of his accomplishments while he was President, but this [his work with Nasa] is certainly on the top of the list and it was an honour for me to be able to tell this story and to look back at Nasa and all that it’s done in the last 60 years.
Watch the trailer for Above & Beyond: Nasa's Journey to Tomorrow:
Above & Beyond: Nasa’s Journey to Tomorrow airs at 8pm Sunday October 14 exclusively on the Discovery Channel. ‘Space Week’ airs on Discovery Channel 8th – 14th October, BT channel 322/376 HD.
Discovery’s channels are part of the 60+ premium channels available on BT TV along with channels such as National Geographic, Animal Planet and TLC.
Images: Discovery / Rex Features