It was two little switches that did it; two little switches that sent everything sideways in Apollo 13. Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton were all in a spaceship on their way to the moon and a person at Mission Control asked Kevin Bacon to stir the oxygen tanks. Bacon said, “Roger that,” then reached over and clicked the switches to activate the ship’s O2 fans and that was that. A tiny piece on one of the tanks malfunctioned, there was an explosion, and everything went to shit. Suddenly, Bacon and Hanks and Paxton were no longer in a spaceship on their way to the moon. They were in a giant metal coffin on their way to death.
I greatly enjoy outer space. I enjoy the bigness of it, and the mystery of it, and the infinity of it. It’s terrifying, really, which then becomes a feeling that morphs its way into “captivating” because I know that I will never encounter a situation in which I am ever asked to sit inside of a ship and blast off into the cosmos. Even just photographs of people in space—like this one of Bruce McCandless II doing an untethered spacewalk in 1984 or this one of Ed White doing the first American spacewalk in 1965—put a feeling in my chest that few other things can. I feel horrified and stupified and mesmerized all at once. I love it. And I hate it. But I love it. And all of that is at the center of why I enjoy astronaut movies so much.
Here’s the activity, and I’m going to write it out as a quote because it’s easier that way, and when you read the quote in your head I want you to do so in whatever kind of voice it is that you find to be the most authoritative, and the most affecting. (For me, it’s that voice Sam Elliott used in A Star Is Born. You can use that one if you can’t think of a good one.)
“This is your objective: You have to build a team of movie astronauts to get you to the moon and back. You can select any astronauts you want from any movies you want. There are seven spots on the team. You’re going to be on the spaceship, which means you have to occupy one of the spots. That leaves you with six to fill. Also: One of the spots has to go to someone at Mission Control who will oversee the mission from Earth. So, who are you picking? Who are the six people you’re trusting to get you from Earth, to the moon, and then back to Earth again alive?”
I’ll tell you how all of this started: Tom Hanks has a new movie that came out several days ago called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. → I love Tom Hanks, and so as a way to prepare for it, I decided that I was going to rewatch several of my favorite Tom Hanks movies in the days leading up to ABDITN’s release. → One of those movies was 1995’s Apollo 13. → After I rewatched Apollo 13 (which is still fucking fantastic, by the way), however, I got sidetracked. → I was so taken in by the movie that I decided to momentarily pivot away from rewatching Tom Hanks movies and instead I started rewatching space movies. → Over the course of four days, I rewatched 1983’s The Right Stuff (Ed Harris is a gem), 1998’s Armageddon (totally dumb but also totally perfect), 2014’s Interstellar (totally perfect but also totally dumb), 1997’s Contact (I will always feel a certain level of emotion in my chest when Jodie Foster hears the alien sound for the first time), 2018’s First Man (I really enjoy the way Damien Chazelle shoots the loneliness of space), 2013’s Gravity (my favorite-ever space movie), 2015’s The Martian (I had no idea that watching Matt Damon eat potatoes could be so intriguing), and a couple of others. → Movie astronauts became all I wanted to talk about and think about, so I asked my editor if I could write a thing where I built a space team using the criteria that I outlined earlier. → And he said yes. → So here we are.
A quick note: I went with seven picks because America’s actual first human spaceflight program—Project Mercury—was made up of seven people. That doesn’t have anything to do specifically with anything, but it just felt like something worth mentioning.
Let’s fill the seats:
SELECTION NO. 1: An astronaut who would be willing to sacrifice his or her life to save mine. Space is the most devastating, most unforgiving place imaginable. No air. No water. No protection from radiation. No nothing. And you’re just out there. Floating through it. On a man-made ship. Built with a million different, tiny pieces. And if one of those million different, tiny pieces malfunctions even for a second … I mean … I don’t want to be indelicate here … but if one of those million different, tiny pieces malfunctions even for a second—it’s a wrap, my friend. You are space toast. (Hanks explains at the end of Apollo 13 that it was a damaged coil built inside one of the oxygen tanks that sparked and caused the explosion that crippled their ship. “It was a minor defect that occurred two years before I was even named the flight’s commander,” he says, highlighting exactly how precarious every single trip into space is.)
So if I’m building a space team, I’m going to build my space team under the assumptions that (a) at some point, something is going to go wrong; and (b) that thing is going to go so wrong that the only way to fix it will require some sort of human sacrifice. Which means my space team needs to have at least one astronaut on it who I can count on to sacrifice themselves so that I can live because I sure as fuck am not sacrificing myself so that everyone else can live. And nobody better exemplifies that kind of heroic sacrificial energy than Harry Stamper in Armageddon. He’s who I’m going with here.
Three quick notes before we move on:
- My guess is it’s my fault that something goes wrong during our trip to the moon. And, in all likelihood, it’s probably for the dumbest reason possible, like I accidentally spill soda on some control panel or some shit like that. Imagine that. Imagine you go through all the training that astronauts have to go through and then you end up dead because some guy knocked over a can of Dr Pepper.
- If Harry Stamper isn’t available for the trip, my second pick is Matt Kowalski from Gravity. If Matt’s not available, then give me Hawk from Space Cowboys because he didn’t need very much convincing when it came time for him to have to sacrifice himself. And if Hawk doesn’t answer the phone, I guess just try to ring everyone from 2007’s Sunshine, a movie about a group of people who volunteer to fly a nuclear bomb into the sun to recharge it. (To reiterate an earlier point, there’s no way I’m volunteering for that mission. The people in charge would be like, “Well, the only way to save Earth is by flying this nuclear bomb into the sun. If you don’t do it, we’re all going to die,” and I’d be like, “Dang, it really sucks that we’re gonna die.”)
- My last-place pick here would be Mann in Interstellar. What a toad he was. It’s been five years since that movie came out and I’m still mad at him about it.
SELECTIONS NO. 2 & 3: An astronaut who is really good at figuring things out while in space and an astronaut who is really good at figuring things out while on a non-Earth planet. These ones are easy picks. Nobody was ever better at figuring things out while in space than Ryan Stone in Gravity (she not only figured out how to fly a Chinese spaceship that she’d never been inside of before, but she also figured out that her life still had value despite feeling otherwise following the death of her daughter) and nobody was better at figuring things out while on a non-Earth planet than Mark Watney in The Martian. Those two get the call here.
SELECTIONS NO. 4 & 5: An astronaut who is really good at dealing with aliens and an astronaut who is really good at dealing with space demons. Five things here:
- Obviously, the chances of encountering an alien while in space are slim, and the chances of encountering a space demon while in space are even slimmer. I get that. And I understand that. BUT, this is one of those situations where you would absolutely rather have a specialist on board and not need them than need a specialist on board and not have them. Because, just as an example, look at a movie like 2017’s Life. They had six astronauts on their ship and all of them were smart and capable and talented, sure, but none of them knew how to deal with aliens. And so by the end of the movie not only was everyone dead (or on their way to being dead) but also the alien that had begun hunting them had made its way to Earth. That’s why you always need an Ellen Ripley (from the Alien franchise) on your spaceship in case you run into aliens and also why you always need a Captain Miller on your spaceship, too.
- Captain Miller is from 1997’s Event Horizon, which was about a spaceship that accidentally became a vessel to hell. Things don’t turn out that great for him in the movie, but they turned out about as well as they could given the circumstances. And to further that point …
- Captain Miller is played by Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne also did really well against aliens in 2010’s Predators. (He survived 10 different hunting seasons on an alien planet.) He’s almost always going to be a valuable asset in any kind of space-based hypothetical, especially in situations where the main goal is to just get you back home alive.
- I’d considered several other categories for SELECTIONS NO. 4 & 5 before settling on the aliens/space demon angles. One of them was: “An astronaut who’d do well in the event that we became stranded in space for a long time.” Had that been one of the categories, I’d probably have gone with Sam Rockwell in 2009’s Moon for the pick. He did OK enough. Last place would’ve been Chris Pratt in 2016’s Passengers. I still can’t believe he took all of the goodwill he’d built up by being lovable and charming in Parks and Rec, The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Jurassic World and then set it all on fire by waking up Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers. Also …
- I don’t need a pilot for this mission because I already have Ryan Stone and Mark Watney. They’ll get the job done. That’s why there’s no pilot category. If there was, though, I’d take Michael Peña in The Martian because I love Michael Peña.
SELECTION NO. 6: Someone at Mission Control to oversee everything. Let’s circle this all the way around and bring it back to the beginning.
Now that I have all my astronauts in place—me (sorry), Harry Stamper from Armageddon, Ryan Stone from Gravity, Mark Watney from The Martian, Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise, and Captain Miller from Event Horizon—I need somebody back on Earth overseeing everything at Mission Control. And I need for that person to have several qualities. I need for that person to (1) have experience as a Mission Control leader. I need for that person to (2) have experience as an actual astronaut. I need for that person to (3) have a jawline that could cut marble and a stare that could melt diamonds. I need for that person to (4) have absolutely no panic in their voice. I need for that person to (5) be an unquestionable, unassailable, unflappable, unwavering leader. And I need for that person to believe that (6) above all else, and with absolutely no exceptions, and with not even a hint of a whisper of a glimmer of a glance, when shit inevitably starts to go wrong, failure is not an option. I need Ed Harris’s Gene Kranz from Apollo 13 in the No. 6 spot.
That’s the team. That’s how I’m getting home alive.