Brad Pitt! Ad Astra!

Brad Pitt! Ad Astra!

Photo credit: Brendan Kownacki

“We’re delighted to have you here for this special discussion of the new science fiction film Ad Astra,” said Fred Ryan, Publisher & CEO of  The Washington Post. “Looking at the room, I see about half of our newsroom here. I hope there’s not any big breaking story this afternoon. We’re pleased to have with us today the star of the movie, Brad Pitt; the film’s director, James Gray; and NASA officials Sarah Noble and Lindsay Aitchison.  As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this summer reminded us, space still captivates the public imagination. Even as unmanned probes photograph distant corners of our universe, we still feel the natural human longing to explore beyond our known world. This is why NASA is preparing for the next phase of human space flight with ambitious plans to launch sustainable missions to the moon within the next decade. Eventually, they intend to send astronauts to Mars.”

Fred Ryan

“For those of us who remain earthbound, films like Ad Astra can help us share in the thrill of these experiences,” he added.  “The movie follows an astronaut’s journey into deep space, including stops on the moon and Mars and shows what early colonization of our solar system might look like. It’s among the most realistic depictions of space travel ever committed to film. Today’s speakers will talk about the movie’s parallel’s with this exciting moment in the development of space travel, and the role of storytelling in inspiring continued scientific exploration and discovery.”

Ann Hornaday, Brad Pitt, James Gray, Lindsay Aitchison and Sarah Noble

After watching several clips, Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post film critic moderated a panel discussion.

Q. “James, you have said that you approached this movie, Ad Astra, with the intention of creating the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put into a movie. You even coined the term science future fact to describe it. Can you talk a little bit about how you set out to accomplish that, and what the aesthetic and conceptual framework was for it?”

A. “You know, a lot of times when you start working on a project you say unbelievably dumb things. Here’s what I would say. I would say that the word I used was wrong. Not realistic. I would say plausible. And what you find is that sometimes you can’t do what is realistic, or even when you do something that is realistic it looks fake, because movie inevitability is a whole other thing. So what I would say, as a long-winded way to answer your question, would be that we tried as best we could to adhere to the science as best that we could, and veer from it when we had to. And that was kind of the governing idea. A lot of times we looked 50 years in the past to try and see what the development was for 50 years maybe in the future. That was kind of a governing principle to it, really.”

Brad Pitt, James Gray and Lindsay Aitchison

Q. “How deep into the weeds did you get with research?”

A.”I got very deep. I mean, my wife will tell you I’m hiding in a corner of the house sitting around with 1960s transcripts. It’s almost a bit of a wormhole in a way, because the movie has to dictate what it needs. You can sit there, and like I said, you can study Buzz Aldrin’s orbital mechanics dissertation, but in the end you have to know it so that you can forget about it. Do you know what I mean?”

Q. “Can research almost get in the way of a performance like this for you Brad?”

A. “Well, you’ve got to suffer a little bit. But this was also by design. This is what I signed onto. I thought it was really brilliant James’ vision of the thing. These guys tried to work in as much analog effects, meaning things that they could capture in the lens, really flares or things that we are accustomed to in nature and in life. And I thought this was really smart – something that we would have a more visceral experience as an audience, and not really be aware of it. I thought that was really pretty brilliant.”

Brad Pitt and James Gray

Q. “When Brad’s character flies to the moon, he flies commercial, it’s just this fabulous scene. There are lots of ideas floating around. One is the commercialization of space. One is the militarization of space. One is the Wild West notion that you get at the end. But Lindsay, I want to ask you, where is NASA right now in terms of lunar ambitions? And if you’d like to tell us about Project Artemis, I know we’d love to hear about it.”

A. “Artemis is our new program. It’s going to bring the first woman and the next man back to the surface of the moon by 2024. It’s really part of a broader exploration plan that we have. We’re not just going to the moon, we’re going to the moon for a purpose. That’s to learn what it’s like to live off the Earth, and what technologies we need, and figure out a few more questions we have about human physiology before we move on to Mars because we want to keep going, we don’t just want to stay here. We want to open up the commercial space, let other people come and enjoy the moon, and we’re going to go off and keep exploring. There are a lot of reasons for us to go back to the moon. There are opportunities if you look at the soil and some of the mineralogy and Sarah can definitely talk more about that than I can; but there are things that we can do there to open up commercial space. It’s just about spurring the economy. It’s about getting people interested in math and science to make sure we’re the leaders in that area.”

Lindsay Aitchison

Q. “Sarah, can you talk a little bit about the science of it all?”

A. “We like to talk about how we’re not just going back to the moon, but we’re actually going forward to the moon. We’ve spent the last couple decades learning about the moon. We now have a very different concept of it than we had during the Apollo era. We know a lot more. We know where to go to get the answers we need to move forward in lunar science. And one of the reasons that we’re going to the South Pole is because there’s a lot of exciting new science we can do there. We think there are a lot of resources there, particularly water, that we can use not only as a resource for our astronauts’ use, but to learn about the moon too, and to understand how the moon has evolved over the last few billion years.”

Sarah Noble

The scientific layers were fascinating, so much so that Pitt interjected many questions out of curiosity. “Beyond that there are other solar systems and endless, endless stars,” said Pitt. “It’s just unfathomable. And powers there that can bend time, and crush … I mean, it’s just beyond our understanding. So, the mystery of it all is quite indelible, and it makes me believe in something bigger than us without being able to define it. I’m okay that we don’t know, but it certainly points me to that kind of belief, and that is probably the most profound effect I had working on the film.”  He ended on a light note referring to his friends’ space movie: “Seriously, who is more believable, Clooney or Pitt?”

Video credit: Brendan Kownacki