U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Buck Rogers movie poster

Poster for the Buck Rogers movie serial starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe.

Apollo 13 video cover

The Universal Studio's movie Apollo 13 tells the true story of how a group of NASA astronauts, stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, return with the help of a dedicated ground crew.

Pre-production sketch from War of the Worlds

Pre-production sketch by Chesley Bonestell of Martian and Martian war machine from George Pal's movie War of the Worlds (1953). Bonestell worked on many films including Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, and many others.

Star Wars production painting by Ralph McQuarrie

Star Wars artwork. Production painting by Ralph McQuarrie.

Artwork from The Empire Strikes Back

Artwork from The Dark Road of Trials. Snowspeeder passes a cable under the nose of an AT-AT, from The Empire Strikes Back.

Ewok hang glider concept drawing

Ewok hang glider, concept drawing by Joe Johnston for Return of the Jedi.

Star Wars storyboard

Storyboard for The Rebel Attack the Death Star Shield Generator on Endor from Return of the Jedi.

Space in Film


Many of the top moneymaking films of all time have been science fiction movies. In particular, after the debut of Star Wars in 1977, science fiction movies have become major business for Hollywood. But although commercially successful, science fiction movies are often overlooked for Hollywood's top awards.


Not all science fiction films are about space; nevertheless, space exploration and space travel have been common themes of many science fiction movies over the decades. At times these forms of popular entertainment have attempted to depict space travel realistically but at other times they have completely ignored the laws of physics.


In the 1930s, one popular form of science fiction entertainment was the movie serial whereby an ongoing story would be told in short segments over a period of weeks or months before a longer feature movie. These segments almost always ended in a cliffhanger, and fans who wanted to know if the hero survived an explosion or a crashing airplane had to come back to the theater the following week to see what happened (although in reality, the audience always knew that the hero would survive, the question simply became how). There were numerous science fiction serials, but two in particular were quite popular: Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, both of which featured Buster Crabbe in the starring role. Both serials depicted cigar-shaped rocket ships spewing sparks and smoke and traveling in the same way that airplanes did.


The 1936 movie Things to Come featured a spacecraft fired from a giant cannon, a concept borrowed from Jules Verne. Although many audience members may have realized that such a launch method would have squashed the spacecraft's occupants flat during firing, the space cannon had another major drawback as well, it provided only a one-way trip.


In the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction movies were heavily influenced by the recent World War and particularly the German A4 (V-2) rocket. Moviemakers would often use stock film footage of V-2s being launched, or would build models that looked virtually identical to the bullet-shaped V-2, or an experimental winged version of the rocket. Movies like the 1950, Destination Moon and even 1953's Abbott and Costello Go to Mars used these shapes. The 1951 film When Worlds Collide featured a huge, winged rocket launched horizontally aboard a sled. It too looked much like the V-2. But none of these fictional rockets had multiple stages.


Many science fiction movies in the 1950s were also influenced by the UFO craze. Various people throughout the United States reported seeing flying saucers in the air and these stories were widely reported in the press and even led to high-level government investigations. Filmmakers adopted the saucer shape as a futuristic spacecraft for their movies. Flying saucers appeared in lousy movies and in classics. Fake-looking saucers on strings appeared in the delightfully bad Plan 9 From Outer Space in 1958. But aesthetically shaped saucer spacecraft also appeared in the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still and the 1957 movie Forbidden Planet.


One movie that featured an alien invasion of earth but did not use the cliched saucer shape was the 1953 movie War of the Worlds. It featured elegant metallic spacecraft that looked like manta-rays with long necks that spewed heat rays. The movie was based upon the H.G. Wells science fiction classic. That book had inspired Orson Welles to perform a radio play in the 1930s, that scared thousands of people in the New York City area who thought that the events they were hearing about on the radio were really happening. The play helped make Welles into a legend. In the 1990s, filmmakers borrowed many of the same themes for the blockbuster movie Independence Day.


In the mid-1950s, Walt Disney sought to make several short films that realistically portrayed the future of space travel. Many of these were featured on his Wide World of Disney television show. Inspired by a series of articles in the popular Collier's weekly magazine, Disney enlisted the assistance of Wernher von Braun, Willey Ley, and other technical experts as well as his top animators such as Ward Kimball. They produced three "docu-dramas" that featured both live action and animation. The first, Man in Space, explained the basic concept of rockets and satellites. The finale of the film concerned the launch of the first crewed spacecraft. It depicted a large multistage rocket firing a winged spacecraft into orbit. The second film, Man and the Moon, was in black and white, and showed a two-person crewed spacecraft traveling around the Moon, mapping it with radar, cameras, and flares. Both shows aired in 1955. The third and most ambitious of the films, Mars and Beyond, focused on a large human expedition to Mars and aired in December 1957. Using comical animation, the narrator discussed the potential for life on Mars. The film then showed a fleet of huge umbrella-shaped spacecraft utilizing ion propulsion gently spiraling outward from earth before heading off to the red planet. Despite an oft-repeated myth, there is no evidence to support the claim that President Eisenhower watched any of these films or that they influenced his decisions concerning the space program. But they did influence many people who later became aerospace engineers and even top NASA officials and had a significant cultural impact on the American space program.


In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey premiered. Kubrick wanted a movie that was based upon informed speculation about space travel more than three decades in the future and he hired technical experts who could design realistic spacecraft. The movie featured a spaceplane, a giant wheeled space station, a lunar shuttle and even a "lunar bus" for transporting personnel over the moon's surface. But the primary spacecraft of the film was the 700-foot (213-meter)-long Discovery. The Discovery was nuclear-powered, but Kubrick made one major technical concession for storytelling sake: he eliminated the giant radiators that would be necessary for such a craft because he thought his audience would wonder why a spacecraft had wings. The Discovery was also supposed to remind the audience of a human skeleton, with its large spherical command center, a long spine-like connecting boom, and its rocket engines at the other end.


Unlike many other films, 2001 also required its spacecraft to obey the laws of physics. Space is inconvenient for storytelling because the distances between all the interesting places are immense. Most writers get around this by inventing some magical propulsion technology, the "hyperdrive" in Star Wars or "jump points" in Babylon 5. 2001 had its spacecraft crawling between the planets at the glacial speed of 25,000 miles per hour (40,234 kilometers per hour), requiring large ships and special systems, like "sleep chambers" where personnel could hibernate like bears for months.


By the 1970s and later, movie spacecraft tended to be super-sleek fightercraft, and often borrowed their design features from World War II aircraft. Darth Vader's TIE-fighter in Star Wars, for instance, had a control column influenced by the one used by the famed Royal Air Force Spitfire fighter of the Battle of Britain.


Most space-themed science fiction films tended to be focused on action and adventure. There have been a few notable exceptions, however. In addition to the aforementioned 2001, Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind attempted to capture the wonder of extraterrestrial contact. Instead of menacing aliens invading earth, the extraterrestrials in that movie were peaceful. Similarly, Jodie Foster's Contact, which premiered in 1997 and based on a story by famed science author Carl Sagan, also took a more serious and joyful approach to the subject of humanity's first encounter with another civilization.


Filmmakers had generally shied away from realistic depictions of the actual Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions. It was not until the 1990s, that these got significant attention. In 1995, the movie Apollo 13, about the ill-fated mission that suffered an oxygen tank explosion on the way to the moon, was a smash hit. This inspired the HBO cable television network to create a series of one-hour films called From the Earth to the Moon, concerning different aspects of the space race. But by the beginning of the 21st century, zipping spaceships and bug-eyed monsters were once again in vogue. Science fiction film and television has always been primarily concerned with entertainment and rarely concerned with accurately portraying space travel.


- Dwayne Day


Sources and further reading:


Agel, Jerome, ed. The Making of Kubrick's 2001. New York: Signet Books, 1970.

Bizony, Piers, 2001: Filming the Future. London: Aurum Press, 1994.

Ordway, Frederick I., and Liberman, Randy. Blueprint for Space. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space. New York: Ungar, 1987.


"Science Fiction Films and Shows." http://windows.arc.nasa.gov/tour/link=/art_and_music/films.html (Many of the links from this site do not work, but it's still a comprehensive list, with descriptions, of many science fiction movies and TV shows.)

"Star Wars: The Magic of Myth." http://www.nasm.edu/StarWars/


Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.