Eyes will be duly popped and imaginations stirred by “Journey to Space,” a valedictory tribute to NASA’s past accomplishments that offers a sneak preview of the agency’s exciting next frontier. Balancing rich footage from previous shuttle missions with a fascinating survey of forthcoming innovations (including but not limited to tools that will enable a human landing on Mars in the next 25 years), writer-director Mark Krenzien’s informative and inspiring documentary has grossed more than $10 million since its February release, and should continue to benefit from a resurgence of public interest in space travel — aided in no small part by “The Martian’s” hit status — as it makes its way along the giant-screen circuit.
A famous opening quote from Carl Sagan — “We began as wanderers, and are wanderers still” — sets an appropriate tone of limitless possibility for a picture that suggests humankind will never run out of new worlds to explore. But before it peers ahead into the future, “Journey to Space” offers a fond look backward with a sort of cinematic obituary for the 30-year space shuttle program (1981-2011), complete with shots of the shuttle Endeavour being flown to its final destination at the California Science Center (requiring some tricky maneuvering through the busy streets of Los Angeles). With its 42-minute running time, the film can only skim the surface of the program’s accomplishments, including the 40-plus flights it took to construct the Intl. Space Station and the various missions to repair the Hubble Telescope, the subject of 2010’s excellent Imax doc “Hubble 3D.”
Older audiences who have seen that film and others, including “Space Station” (2002), will be familiar with the sort of “Look Ma, no gravity!” archival footage presented here, in which astronauts from different flights are shown experiencing the pleasures and challenges of weightlessness (kids will have fun grasping at lollipops floating outward from the screen during one of many goofy astronaut hangouts). The film emphasizes the international camaraderie that enabled U.S. space shuttles to dock with the Russian station Mir in the ’90s, glossing over the many difficulties and hazards of post-Cold War space collaboration in service of a general spirit of teamwork and optimism that, it’s implied, will drive us toward ever richer and more surprising vistas to come.
We get a tantalizing look at those vistas in the film’s second half, as well as the pioneering technologies that will enable astronauts to reach them. These include Orion, a new craft designed for long-term, deep-space exploration, and Olympus, an inflatable habitat that will serve as an expanded work and living area for those on board. Even the smaller innovations, such as a study to improve space-suit mobility (juxtaposed with footage of clunkily clad astronauts falling over on the moon’s surface in 1968), provide an absorbing glimpse into the minds of engineers tasked with visioning and troubleshooting our way forward. The film culminates in much informed speculation about the likelihood of a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, teased by rover-captured photos of the red planet’s surface.
The appeal of “Journey to Space,” then, is as much a matter of information as presentation. The images of space — a closeup of sun flares, a shot of a nebula — are impressive as advertised but never feel like the main attraction, and the film overall would be not be much less absorbing in 2D, or on a smaller screen. Patrick Stewart handles the narration duties with practiced gravitas.