Cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood these days. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off the current craze in 2008 and truly changed the game when The Avengers broke all the records in 2012. Since then, most major studies have tried to kickstart their own shared universe, to varying results.
Most cinematic universes have been spectacular failures. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has sputtered so many times and now they don’t seem focused on connecting their movies. Universal’s Dark Universe was dead on arrival with the dismal reception to The Mummy in 2017. Sony has tried a few times to create a Sony-verse with their Spider-Man characters. Into the Spider-Verse was a revelation last year so an animated universe has solid ground, but it remains to be seen if they’re able to make a live-action one stick following Venom last year.
The Legendary MonsterVerse has been fairly successful with audiences, if not critically. Only The Fast and the Furious franchise seems to gain momentum with each entry, and this summer’s Hobbs and Shaw was a successful extension of their universe.
All these shared universes attempt to share characters and tell overarching stories like the MCU and they’ve all attempted to launch since The Avengers. But did you know that there’s been a cinematic universe building since the 1980s?
The NASA Early Space Program Cinematic Universe (NESPCU) has slowly created a shared universe covering the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. It doesn’t share the same actors in every installment, and it’s released out of order, but over the course of four movies, we’ve witnessed the birth of the space program and the struggles that characters endured in order to reach the ultimate success of landing on the moon. Welcome to the NASA Early Space Program Cinematic Universe.
The universe kicked off in 1983 with The Right Stuff, which chronicled the origin of the US space program, beginning with the first man to break the sound barrier. It introduces the Mercury 7 – the first Americans to fly in space. The movie follows Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, and the other first astronauts as they train for space flight and shows their lives change dramatically as they become national heroes.
The story continues with Hidden Figures (2016), which tells the story of the African American women who worked as computers that helped calculate the trajectories of the Mercury astronauts. Hidden Figures works as a parallel story to fill out the universe established in The Right Stuff and provides a different perspective of the world we already know, functioning much like how Lion King 1 ½ tells the story from the original Lion King from Timon and Pumbaa’s point of view. John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts make an appearance in Hidden Figures, and the movie shows the important role Katherine Johnson played particularly in Glenn’s Mercury space flight.
The Mercury program was followed by the Gemini and Apollo programs as NASA set its sights on the moon. The race to the moon is depicted in First Man (2018). Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury 7, was now responsible for assigning flight crews and welcoming new astronauts, including the entire Apollo 11 crew, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and others. First Man focuses on Neil Armstrong’s journey through the astronaut program, including his command of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The Apollo program also suffered a critical failure that cost the lives of three astronauts, including original Mercury 7 astronaut Gus Grissom, when a fire broke out during the Apollo 1 test sequence.
First Man includes the climax of the NASA cinematic universe – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to step foot on the moon. Their journey is beautifully displayed in the movie and the pinnacle of human achievement is felt throughout the program.
Apollo 13 (1995) closes out the NESPCU, opening with a recap of the major moments from First Man – the Apollo 1 fire and the moon landing. Jim Lovell, a background character from First Man, now takes center stage as he commands Apollo 13 and sets his sights on becoming part of an elite group of men who walked on the moon. During Apollo 13’s journey, an oxygen tank failed causing the mission to be aborted. Instead of landing on the moon, the team circled the moon and was able to come back to Earth safely, thanks to the ingenuity of the crew and those at mission control. During the suspenseful reentry, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are shown visiting Lovell’s house to comfort his wife and mother.
Apollo 13 represents closure and continuation of the NESPCU. Four more Apollo flights launched after Apollo 13, but the movie provides a catharsis and conclusion for the series. Although the Apollo 13 mission failed, NASA still has the skill and knowledge to do great things.
While the NESPCU may not be a traditional cinematic universe with the same actors showing up in each movie, these four movies together tell a remarkable story. The space race of the late 1950s and 1960s was some of the most ambitious feats ever attempted by mankind. Throughout the NESPCU, you can track NASA’s birth, rise, struggles and victories. The space program literally opened the universe to thousands of new possibilities. Space truly is the final frontier, and these movies remind us just how hard we worked to get there and how much further we can go.
Shout out to this Patrick Willems video for the inspiration of this post.