Top 10 Movies to Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Manned Spaceflight

April 10, 2011

April 12, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of manned spaceflight. On April 12, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off aboard Vostock I and completed one full Earth orbit. Hard to imagine now how the world changed that day, much as it did years earlier in October, 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik. Since October 31, 2000, there has been a continuous human presence in space as the International Space Station began full-time operation. So what better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of manned spaceflight than by watching one or more of the Top 10 space movies.

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Starting off an Number 10 is the very first movie about manned space travel, the 1902 silent film, A Trip To The Moon by the pioneer French filmmaker, Georges Melies. Basically an adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, From the Earth to the Moon, a group of intrepid adventurers board a large artillery shell and fired into space using a gigantic cannon. The film is a bit corny but is still fun to watch. Considering Melie′s techniques and improvisations, it was a landmark movie for its day.

At Number 9, we have another silent movie, Aelita – Queen of Mars from 1924. This Soviet post-revolutionary film deals with an engineer who builds a rocket and flies to the Red Planet, Mars. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, the story seems something based loosely on Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter on Mars series of novels, most likely the first one, Princess of Mars. This story, however, in true Soviet fashion, includes a workers revolt against the Queen.

For Number 8, we have one last silent movie which is worth watching, Fritz Lang′s Woman in the Moon. This 1929 film features many firsts from a technical-scientific point of view. The 1st countdown to launch, the 1st use of a multi-stage rocket, and even the rocket being launched from water to prevent damage was unique. Today, NASA uses streams of water during their launches of the Space Shuttle. It is no wonder that this movie is technically very accurate, as early German rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth, was a technical adviser to Lang. As for the plot, it is a tale of greed as the adventurers fly to the Moon seeking gold.

For Number 7, we turn our attention to George Pal′s 1950 classic, Destination Moon. This technicolor spectacular is still a treat today as a group of private industrialists and engineers decide that America must lead the way into space. Probably the best part of this movie is the Walter Lantz cartoon of Woody Woodpecker learning about rockets and spaceflight. In later years, NASA also used Lantz and Woody for some of their promotional films.

For Number 6, we go back again to Jules Verne, this time a more faithful adaptation of From the Earth to the Moon by director Byron Haskim from 1958. This one stars Joesph Cotton as the insufferable Victor Barbicane and George Sanders as the equally insufferable Stuyvesant Nicholl. With two insufferable men like these cramped together inside a cannon shell, you just know things are going to go wrong!

Number 5 on my list is Clint Eastwood′s Space Cowboys. An aged Clint rounds up his old aged flight crew to bail out NASA when an aged Russian satellite malfunctions. Plenty of generational comedy as well as a mildly touching subplots. The all-star cast of Eastwood, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones includes a cameo, of Jay Leno which is fun.

Number 4 is another all-star movie, Marooned, later renamed Space Traveler after it bombed the first time around. Gregory Peck and David Jansen struggle to rescue the crew of Iron Man One, consisting of Richard Crenna, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman, who is terrific as the astronaut who cracks under pressure. While the crews air runs out, a hurricane threatens to stop the rescue launch. There is no shortage of ham, however, in this flick which keeps us amused.

Number 3 is the Oscar nominated Apollo 13 by director Ron Howard. The true story of survival and courage features Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, Bill Paxton as Fred Haise and Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert. On the ground, trying to help them are Gary Sinse as Ken Mattingly and Ed Harris as Gene Kranz who utters that immortal quote, ″Failure is not an option!″ Indeed it isn′t!

For Number 2 on my list I have chosen another true story of the early days of the Space Race, director Philip Kaufman′s adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book, The Right Stuff. The tale begins on the prehistoric desert of California where Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier! But it is not long before the speed crazy test pilots, whom nobody knew their names, traded in their jets for rockets as NASA selects the Mercury 7 astronauts. Terrific performances by Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard and Ed Harris as John Glenn.

For my Number One movie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of manned spaceflight, I have selected, drum roll please…2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. This film broke all the rules and set new standards. There is simply no way for me to describe this one in such a limited space. People have written doctoral thesis’s and whole books trying to explain this film. My suggestion is that you just watch it and judge for yourself! You may want to also make a double feature of it and watch the sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact from director Peter Hyams. But I am sure that even Yuri Gagarin would agree with me that 2001: A Space Odyssey sums up the necessity of humankind to explore space.

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