The documentary “Apollo 11” — playing in select IMAX theaters now, before opening more widely in regular cinemas on Friday — is one of the most rousing movies ever made about NASA and space exploration. The director Todd Douglas Miller and a team of archivists and editors found rare footage of the original manned lunar landing mission, and compiled it into a film that’s an immersive and inspiring record of the voyage, from launch to splashdown.
But “Apollo 11” is far from the only great documentary about humanity’s efforts to explore beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The “space doc” is a small but fertile nonfiction cinema subgenre, populated by filmmakers who often partner with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to combine astonishing images with recollections from the small handful of men and women who have dared to venture to the stars.
[Read our review of “Apollo 11,” a Times Critic’s Pick]
Here are five of the best of these movies, and how to stream them.
‘For All Mankind’ (1989)
The gold standard for NASA documentaries, this Oscar-nominated 1989 film is rich with the alien wonder of a trip to the moon. The director Al Reinert was granted access to footage shot by astronauts during the various Apollo missions, and he and his editors (led by Susan Korda) cut them into an approximation of a single voyage, with a focus on scenes that are eerie and awe-inspiring. With its score by the ambient music pioneers Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois — and its narration provided by the original Mission Control audio recordings, combined with reflective astronaut interviews — “For All Mankind” evokes the grand science-fiction adventure of Apollo. (For a more straightforward, less experimental account of the program, the 2007 British documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” is also highly recommended. It’s available to stream for free on the ad-supported Tubi.)
As a bittersweet bookend to “Apollo 11,” watch this documentary about the final moon mission, and see how it changed the life of its commander, Eugene Cernan. The director Mark Craig keeps his film fairly equally divided between the personal, professional and political sides of Cernan’s NASA career. “The Last Man on the Moon” covers the public’s growing frustration with the expense of the space program, and also gets into the technical complexities of that last trip in 1972, and into how an astronaut’s job conflicts with family life. This is the rare space-doc that’s also a poignant character sketch. And it doesn’t lack for great lunar footage, either. Apollo 17 had access to color video cameras far beyond what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked with, and the images Cernan and his crew captured on the moon are stunning in their clarity.
‘The Farthest’ (2017)
When NASA launched its two deep-space Voyager probes in 1977, the missions sparked conversations among scientists, artists, philosophers and ordinary folks, all wondering what information about Earth should be sent out into the universe, and what data — or even communication — might come back from the distant planets and stars. The director Emer Reynolds’s documentary “The Farthest” describes the work that went into crafting these enduring marvels of mid-’70s technology, which are still zooming away out there. The film is a reminder of the idealism and optimism of the people who worked in the space program over 40 years ago, and serves as a call to recapture their spirit and ingenuity.
‘The Mars Generation’ (2017)
How to watch: Stream it on Netflix.
Manned space exploration has slowed lately, but the nonprofit organization the Mars Generation has been working since 2015 to keep the next wave of astronauts and rocket scientists ready anyway, just in case. The documentary “The Mars Generation” introduces some brilliant, space-obsessed teens, who take part in special camps designed to simulate what it might be like to travel to and even live on Mars. These kids are sometimes socially awkward, but always sweetly earnest. It’s heartwarming to watch them work together toward a goal they may never achieve in real life, unless the public broadly supports another big, expensive project on the scale of the Apollo missions.
How to watch: Stream it on Netflix.
How about a little historical “what if?” In 1960, the NASA adviser Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II began an experiment to see if ace female pilots could endure the series of physical and mental challenges he had originally devised for the “Mercury Seven” astronauts. When he discovered that some women scored higher on some tests than the men, the privately funded “Woman in Space” program started lobbying the media and the U.S. government, arguing that in order to compete with the Soviets in the space race, America needed to overcome its deep-rooted sexism. The documentary “Mercury 13” features interviews with some of the accomplished pilots and scientists who worked on this project, many of whom remain certain that the space program — and perhaps even the culture — might have been different if NASA had been more open to Lovelace’s experiments.