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The Right Stuff: Spaced Out

There’s nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker af­ter so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn’t have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn’t have it. The right stuff is a man’s “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and ul­timately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Like Predestination, there’s no earthly, definitive way of knowing for sure if you’ve got the right stuff, which is no doubt why so many Protestant boys, accustomed to looking for signs of election, spend their lives trying to prove they’ve got it. According to Wolfe, you can even be fairly certain you’ve got the right stuff and then fuck up — at any time — and find out after all that you didn’t have it — usually at about the same moment you are dying, except you’re not caring about dying so much as discover­ing that you probably didn’t have the right stuff and eating your heart out thinking now everyone is going to know.

This business about the right stuff and death is where things get a little mysterious and paradoxical, although people with the right stuff, Wolfe says, usually don’t dwell much on mysteries and paradoxes because thinking like this can foul up the reflexes, the coolness, etc. While a good sign that you’ve got the right stuff is caring more about having it than dying, it is also true that anyone trying to prove he’s got the right stuff has a very good chance (one in four) of dying while doing it, and dying — ­almost more than anything — probably means that you didn’t have it (the moxie, the reflexes, etc. to pull it out, etc.). You fucked up.

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There’s something about thinking about the right stuff and writing about the right stuff that makes you talk like this, like a drawlin’, Appalachia-raised, country-boy — ­like Chuck Yeager, to be precise, the most righteous possessor of the right stuff who ever lived, according to Wolfe, the hottest of the hot-shot test and fighter pilot jocks. Nerveless, rocket-testing Chuck was the first man to fly past Mach 1, the man whose cooler than cool, aw shucks manner — “now folks, we’re just goin’ through a little tiny mite of turbulence” (the plane has just dropped 1000 feet, your heart is in your mouth) — was imitated by every post war pilot until it became standard pilotese: The voice of God, if God were good. But though writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff makes the white-knuckled jet-rider in you especially grateful for the captain-virtues that time and again have put your heart back in your chest, it tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It’s a scary combination.

The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it — it’s his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book — although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone’s imagined perspective — even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees — but because Wolfe is ev­erywhere, be is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, “I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject” style, sometimes using the same phrases to describe very different things; and eventually he winds up counterfeiting his own language.

While writing from the point of view of the first astronaut-contenders who endured grueling, sadistic tests at Lovelace Clinic, Wolfe coins the, phrase “White Smocks.” White Smocks are the cold, clinical, note-­taking dehumanisers. White smocks specialize in humiliating procedures, like giving barium enemas and then making the men walk two flights to a toilet. They “teach” chimps to be “astronauts” by zapping electric current through’ the soles of their feet when they fail to perform correctly. But later in the book, while writing from the perspective of Scott Carpenter — the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts who was at all interested in ex­perimental science — the term White Smocks is as­sociated with an enlightened, humanistic purpose which is foiled by NASA engineers, by pro-operational, anti­-science types whose champion is Wally Schirra.

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The effect is dizzying, and issues get clouded, not clarified. Wolfe’s “stuff” becomes very repetitious — lots of dummy-heads but one ventriloquist. Instead of high­-lighting the nuances of the events and personalities he is chronicling, too often Wolfe’s style homogenizes them, and by making all “the dramas” he writes about sound equally charged, Wolfe sometimes neutralizes rather than heightens their impact.

The essence for Wolfe is not the content of disputes but their disputeness. A particular controversy becomes Any Controversy, with absurdly reductive results. He writes with identical irony, identical identi­fication/alienation, often identical pitch when describing controversies as different in degree (and significance) as Kennedy versus Khrushchev in Cold War strategy, the astronauts’ self-concept as jock pilots versus NASA’s idea of them as “lab rats,” and Alan Shepherd’s “astronauts can fuck around discretely” line versus John Glenn’s “astronauts shouldn’t fuck anyone.” By the end of the book, Wolfe’s “politics” (what are they?) and sense of proportion about events are so askew that, explaining the  public’s diminished interest in the astronauts after 1963, he attributes this to the installation of telephone hot lines and the ban on weapons in orbit. Then the Cold War ended, he says; nowhere in The Right Stuff are Vietnam, the assassinations, or various civil rights movements ever mentioned with relationship to the space program, or American focus on it.

This is dumb. Throughout The Right Stuff, too, the press is “the Victorian Gentlemen,” a herd of toadying mush-peddlers, hawking pure-boy astronauts in the ’60s, possible Watergates-under-every-politician in the ’70s. But the important thing for Wolfe (even assuming he were entirely right about the press as “herd”) is not that these phenomena have had entirely different effects on society, but that journalists hawk. What a piddly thing to get huffy about considering all the shit — like the racism in the space program (let me not mention the sexism) — that Wolfe allows to go flying by.

Well, enough about the good stuff, now for some criticism. Despite the thwack this book ultimately delivers to the soul, a lot is very interesting, a good deal is funny, much is exciting, and there are some Wolfian set-piece gems.

The Right Stuff, a history of the pioneering Mercury missions, was expected about five years ago, but Wolfe’s delay probably benefits the book. Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Russian Menace who made a bid for possession of the heavens. American presidents, senators who appropriated billions to put a man in space, citizens who wept when freckled-face John Glenn talked about the flag — all looked to the astronauts to “represent” them in the sky. During the Cold War, the astronauts were invented to serve as “single combat warriors,” soldiers symbolic of the nation, or, to be more exact, as human sacrifices — since most American rocket-launchings up to this point had ended in ludicrous fizzle-outs or horrific fire storms. Everyone expected that the astronauts would die. Only one incen­tive could make otherwise ordinary American boys will­ing to sit on top of a rocket that was probably going to blow up: the lure of the right stuff, the military ideal of masculine virtue (rockets are dangerous, but we’re used to danger), the scent of glory to “the boys,” the ring in the bull’s nose to Kennedy.

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Wolfe’s descriptions of the evolution of the fighter jock ego are superbly on target, its source in the World War II fighters, its nurturance in the jet and rocket testing programs at Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base). Wolfe also dramatizes  exceedingly well the way the right stuff mystique trapped the Mercury astronauts in a Catch-22 maze: The testing process was designed to select the most gullible, most serviceable (I would rather die than fuck up), least introspective, least curious pilots; but to the astronauts, their ability to play NASA’s game (there is no shit I will not eat) and get selected was evidence of their possession of “the stuff.”

And what was (is) the kick? First, the life: never growing up, fraternity days forever, living away from the wife and children, flying all day, then drinking, then driving fast cars while drunk (more pilots die in cars than in planes, Wolfe says), and screwing around — although women seem to be very, very low on the pleasure totem pole, and right-stuff women are, as described by Wolfe, “moist labial piping little birds.” (Who’s talking here? Pilots say “labial”?) Second, the glory: ticker-tape pa­rades, moms on national TV. Third, the “goodies,” every military man’s due, but extra for astronauts: money, meeting presidents and rich people, book contracts, etc.

As is probably clear, when they aren’t flying planes or rockets, the astronauts Wolfe writes about are not what could easily be called fun people. Alan Shephard liked to do Jose Jimenez routines, Wally Schirra was a “gotcha” kidder. After Wolfe’s splendid opening chapters on avia­tion history and the birth of the space program, where he freely exercises his eye for grisly detail, the middle of the book sags dully as Wolfe “becomes” each astronaut — Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton being pits in the valley. Their lives all seem pathetically bleak and circumscribed by callow needs. The lives of their wives and children seem bleaker still. Little wonder that “the wives” seldom looked enraptured to see their husbands returned from space. From the stories Wolfe tells, it might even have given a few of the wives some pleasure to see “the bastards,” their husbands, catapulted into the great blue beyond.

But the saga picks up momentum again as Wolfe describes how “the valiant lads” altered the Mercury program, little-by-little turning themselves from ex­perimental subjects into jock pilots who could, and in certain cases had to, control their space vehicles. The descriptions of the space shots themselves are ex­traordinarily exciting, Wolfe showing his journalistic “right stuff” each time, taking the story to “the edge” and pulling it out “with moxie, experience,” the works. It’s amazing, really. We know the outcomes — although not all the details, actual risks, human and mechanical foul ups — and still Wolfe makes the reader wonder, “Yeah, yeah, and then what happened? Did he crash?”

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At several other points along the way, Wolfe is in top form, summarizing and satirizing with wild Rabelaisian excess and grotesque Brueghelesque detail: The scene in which John Glenn, first man to orbit the earth, addresses the Senate, introduces his wife Annie as “the rock,” and the old curmudgeons stand up and shout “Amen.” The scene in which poststroke Joe Kennedy meets Glenn and starts crying, but only half his face can move. The scene of the astronauts’ welcome to Houston amid an indoor barbecue; whole steers are being roasted, and enormous greasy joints are served to the stunned pilots and their families who can barely keep the meat from slipping off the paper plates onto their laps. The scene of Alan Shephard in the first Mercury space capsule after a four­-hour delay in his launch, horrified that his unstaunchable need to urinate, for which no provision has been made, will be broadcast across the wires of the world.

Here is Wolfe on the first assemblage of potential astronauts: “Conrad … flies into a room with thirty-four other young men, most of them with crew cuts … and the unmistakable cocky rolling gait of fighter jocks, not to mention the pathetic-looking civilian suits and the enormous wristwatches. The wristwatches had about two thousand calibrations on them and dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns. These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots. Thirty-odd young souls wearing Robert Hall clothes that cost about a fourth as much as their watches: in the year 1959 this had to be a bunch of military pilots trying to disguise themselves as civilians.”

Here is Wolfe’s description of one of the fiascos at Cape Canaveral: “The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself — and then seems to change its mind … because the flames suddenly cut off … and there’s a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it’s the capsule’s escape tower. As the crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up about 12,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about three hundred feet away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandpit, where bugs you couldn’t even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet — all the way to this rockbeach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with the thunder — and instead they get this … this pop … and a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante.”

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And here is Wolfe describing the grim staging setup by Life photographers when the first three Mercury astronauts were announced: “To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerably. To present such a spectacle at the Cape — which was, in effect, off limits to wives — was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you ­could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shephards — the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander … In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs, staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags.

“As for the Other Four, they might as well have dropped through a crack in the earth.”

There is much, finally, that is touching about the alienation of these men from one another, from their families, and from the images America had of them. There is also something extraordinarily moving about what the astronauts did, regardless of their personal motivations and the politics behind the money that financed their undertaking. I remember watching the launchings on TV (sometimes at school), absolutely spell­-bound by the whole thing, unperturbed by the tech­nolingo of “rogers ” and “a-okays.” I always appreciated the the sensation of speed under control, and I admired and still admire physical courage. I didn’t want the astronauts to die, and l don’t think this feeling had anything to do with Russia. I thought even the most clonelike astronauts were exceedingly brave. Some had more than bravery. Whether this sort of courage and the cool daring the astronauts and test pilots manifested is ever separable from the blockheaded nonsense of right stuffness isn’t answered by Wolfe, and it isn’t asked. For him, they are ineluctably of a piece.

The book ends with a harrowing account of Chuck Yeager’s escape from a careening NF-104 rocket in 1963. He had tried and failed to take it faster and higher than the Russians. He finally ejects. While sailing through the air, a piece of metal from the seat mechanism hits him. His eye is cut; it starts to bleed, then, suddenly, his face begins to burn under his helmet. His eye is bleeding, his face is burning, one finger catches fire as he tries to rip his helmet off, and all of this is happening as he’s parachuting toward earth. He lands, remains cool, and lives to tell about it. Just before this flight, Wolfe tells us Yeager was feeling particularly pissed off about Kennedy’s insistence that a black astronaut be trained. Yeager goes up and comes down, and the Russian record is never broken. And does Wolfe admire the right stuff and what it can get men to do more than he mocks them? I honestly couldn’t tell. ❖

THE RIGHT STUFF. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.

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Moon Landing: Lunacy on a Muddy Meadow

The Age of Lunacy on a Muddy Meadow

The Moon-In on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park last Sunday night came off as the world’s largest outdoor multi-media program.

Vying for spectator popularity, three huge screens representing each of the major networks stood like the ruins of a technological Stonehenge under an arc of criss-crossing searchlights. An artificial moon hung overhead where the beams converged in the mist, casting a biblical light on some 10,000 pilgrims who came to watch man’s first steps on another planet.

A new breed of fresh-air TV viewer sloshed through ankle-deep mud waiting patiently for Armstrong to plant his foot on lunar dust. Riot police were alternately engaged in watching the tube, being interviewed by extraterrestrial reporters sporting earphones with bug-like antennae twitching above their heads, and guarding against outbreaks of lunacy.

Circus tents had been erected to serve the hungry multitudes lunar hotdogs, satellite donuts, and Cosmic Cokes. Pan Am had a booth where you could sign for their first trip to the moon. And standing near to a clump of ultra-violet trees, a group of students from the School of Visual Arts, dressed like lunar versions of the Ku Klux Klan, were holding onto the fringes of a parachute and throwing a colored beachball up in the air like an Eskimo child on a blanket. For some obscure reason they called their activity a Moon Dance.

The music coming from a bandshell, embellished with the World Flag, alternated between patriotic stomps, Blue Moon foxtrots, and some groovy intergalactic vibes from the Silver Apples. On another screen, snatches of Buck Rogers adventures were rerun to put everything into perspective.

As zero hour approached I wiggled through the mobs surrounding the big screens, eavesdropping at a number of different circles of longhairs to see if their approach to the lunar landing was similar to the average interviews on television and in the press.

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“Come on, Joey, let’s go home,” one scroungy-looking ragamuffin of a girl suggested to her partner seconds before Armstrong stepped out on the porch.

“Maybe the whole thing is simulated; maybe they’re not up there at all,” a space age speed freak with an overdose of paranoia said.

“Can you imagine what this whole thing would be like if the media had control of it — if Walter Cronkite was running it instead of those robots at Cape Kennedy,” another boy added to the fantasy. “They’d have astronauts plugging deodorants from the moon, Castro convertible interior designing in the LM, mod space suits in psychedelic colors, and they’d set the whole thing up so we could watch it on prime time TV.”

“Yeah, hey, dig it, you know with all those souvenirs they’re going to leave up there on the moon, I wonder if the Plaster Casters got together and sent up a memento of Slicky Dicky,” an over-age groupie suffering from middle-age sag wondered out loud enough so that most of the straight people in the area started edging away.

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President Nixon oozed onto the screen and was met by enough boos so that no one could hear what he said.

“Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” a young man with a can of beer and an Eastern Airlines umbrella asked.

“General Motors Time or Lunar Time, baby,” a red-bearded man with a sailor’s cap and a miniature American flag clenched between his teeth inquired.

“You know it’s not going to be overly amusing when those guys get stuck up there on the moon and everybody just sits around watching them die,” a concerned young blonde worried.

“They’ll just switch on the Mets game instead,” some cynic said.

“No, you know what they’ll do? The Russians will land Luna 15 right next door and the Americans will have to hitch a ride back. Wouldn’t that be far out?” a boy with a mustache, vest, and cowboy boots said.

“If I could have a wish,” an airlines stewardess lamented, “it would be that the United Nations flag be planted on the moon instead of the American flag.”

Generally when questioned about the value of the Apollo mission most of the people I talked with said that while they’d rather have the money given to people down here who need it, psychologically it was a good thing to get some distance from the Earth and be able to look back on it and realize that we all live here and we’re going to have to learn to make it together.

One Czech tourist I spoke with said the beauty of the Apollo mission was that it was like a Greek tragedy where the audience knew exactly what was coming and there were no surprises. “This landing on the moon represents the funeral for politicians,” he continued, “it proves that a team of technicians can solve our impossible problems while politicians can’t.”

“Really this whole thing is kind of a drag,” a red raincoated girl from Houston drawled, “I’m waiting for the little men from another planet to arrive.”

“I can grok it,” a sci-fi fan announced.

“Next stop Tralfalmadore,” another of the literati chimed in.

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In the course of the evening I picked up a good deal of the lunar trivia that polluted almost every conversation I listened in on. For instance did you know that there is already some guy in Chile who has laid claim to the moon with the Chilean Supreme Court. Apparently when the government subsequently tried to tax him for his newly acquired real estate he told them that they’d have to survey it first.

Or that each astronaut is traditionally given a half of a dollar bill before he leaves on a space voyage and that he must produce it after splashdown as proof that he is the same man who left and not some imposter.

Or that President Nixon made the call to the moon collect.

Or that the Russians were the first to put a man and a woman into space together stimulating world-wide speculation about weightless erotica.

Finally no one could ignore the new field of space symbolism. The fact that we landed in the Sea of Tranquility while the Russians crashed in the Sea of Crises; that the American Eagle lost its lightning on the way to the moon; that Armstrong anthropomorphized the landing site alternately as a giant footstep and a football field; that space flight terminology such as “lunar insertion” appears blatantly sexual in tone; and that Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) is strikingly similar to the name of a well known biblical figurine.

Unable to grasp in fullness the implications of the cosmic event they were watching on their silver screens, New Yorkers, not unlike fellow earthlings, retreated to tried and tested forms of celebration. Some yelled hoorah, others threw their caps in the air, large numbers kept long vigils, a few tried to learn a new technological language, and those in Central Park fell back on the “In” form of rejoicing — of be-in, love-in, and smoke-in fame — in order to be as up-to-date as possible in the new Age of Lunacy. Of course from the moon it all must have looked fairly foolish.

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It’s Zombies in Space During The Last Days on Mars

The year’s third everything-goes-wrong-in-space flick is its second best, stripped of the dewy self-helpisms of its better, Gravity, and the limiting found-footage approach of its brainy/dumb lesser, Europa Report.

Ruairi Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars doesn’t monkey with any of that NASA-approved, Neil deGrasse Tyson-pleasing speculative-fiction realism.

Instead, it’s just zombies versus an international research station on the wastes of the Red Planet, with all that such a premise promises: the thrill of the discovery of new life, the terror when that new life wants to eat all the old life, plus all the usual troubles with helmets, airlocks, a ship in orbit, and the competing interests of squabbling scientists, all written more as Earthlings than people.

Their base even has one of those hilariously cursed names cribbed from myth: the Tantalus. Why not just go with the Chutzpah? The first half plays out by the numbers, with undead astronauts popping open the fragile bubble protecting the crew, but there’s some grandeur to the second, especially when Liev Schreiber’s stoic joe grunts through impossible decisions affecting the course of human existence.

He and Romola Garai find intelligent life in boilerplate scenes of worried folks wondering if they might be infected with the worst of all contagions.

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Ersatz Space Doc Europa Report Only Looks Realistic

No human has left near-Earth orbit since 1972, we’re reminded in Europa Report, a smartly marketed space-horror quickie that purports to be the one-giant-leap for found-footage scares—and also maybe Serious Space-Travel Movies themselves, which have failed to soar past our atmosphere almost as long as NASA has.

To that end, when the astronauts of Europa Report are first rocketed free of Earth’s surly bonds, we briefly hear “The Blue Danube,” just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as the boosters drop and their capsule surges, the waltz—and the courtly magnificence it suggests—is just one more layer of noisome clutter, a staticky joke played (I guess) by someone down at mission control.

While they send up our pompous, movie-made wish for what space travel might be like, the creators of Europa Report never hide their indebtedness to Kubrick. With their attention to speculative detail, the way they present the lives of zero-g astronauts as workaday marvels, and, most urgently, the mystery mission they’ve crafted into the realm of Jupiter itself, they’re dancing around 2001 like man-apes around that great black slab.

But they also have the prickly convictions of their found-footage genre, plus almost a half-century’s worth of mounting cynicism about the likelihood of humanity ever coming together to do something so grand as voyage across the stars, so the movie also seems conceived as a buzzkilling corrective, one generation saying to its more idealistic forebears, “No, it would be like this. And let’s be smart enough not to date our science fiction by naming it for a near-future year that will fall within the movie’s home-video saleability.”

So we get Europa Report, in which the majesty of space travel is reduced to what the cameras on the spacecraft can pick up. Over the two-year journey to Jupiter, we watch the astronauts, in their cramped and flimsy capsules, doing astronaut things: working out, cutting each other’s hair, drinking their distilled urine from crinkly aluminum Capri Sun-like pouches. We see this on the catch-as-catch-can cameras set up inside their quarters—the aesthetic is less the music of the spheres than life inside the Big Brother house.

On occasion, a crewmember looks outside, or drops a hint about the mission, and there are lots of convincing cutaways to footage purportedly captured by the craft itself: a slowly pinwheeling capsule; the distant sun the size of a dime. The movie has the drab quality of actual NASA video, which might be more effective if the scenario itself felt more realistic. But as the craft nears its destination—Europa, that iced-over Jovian moon—no amount of ascetic realism could disguise the script’s hokiness. The mission turns out to be the stuff of a 1950s creature feature, padded out with the usual survival-scenario dramatics: Someone has to take a risky trip outside the ship for [insert plot reason here]! Someone else has to make a noble sacrifice! And isn’t that one Russian crewmember acting a little squirrelly?

The conceit here is that about halfway through the mission—to drill through Europa’s surface ice into the living sea below—the spacecraft loses all communication with Earth. The footage is presented as an ersatz documentary about what happened next, with a couple actors playing mission control’s talking heads, and a couple mysteries to keep us engaged: If the craft stopped transmitting, how do we now have this footage? Why is there one fewer astronaut than we were introduced to? Why does only one astronaut in a reality-TV-style “confessional” room narrate what has been happening? And, most pressingly, if this film about a dangerous mission into the unknown was truly assembled for us by the scientists who conceived of that mission, why does it hew to the dramatic beats of entry-level screenwriting, right down to that one squirrelly crewmember gazing out at Europa’s surface and exclaiming, “I saw something!” exactly one-third of the way through the running time?

Simply put, the care and thoughtfulness that goes into footage-faking has not been applied to the film’s script or structure. Director Sebastián Cordero is scrupulous about alerting us to which camera is alleged to have shot any individual moment, but he doesn’t seem to get that audiences, at this point, are smart enough also to wonder who edited it, who scored it, and why any scientists assembling this footage would delay the question of whether we’ve discovered alien life to the last 10 minutes. Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast tricked people because it sounded like actual radio journalism, not because its sound effects were wonderfully lifelike. That was a triumph of form—this is a failure of it.

There are some fine moments, though, that glance against grand mysteries. The Europan climax, while hard to believe, achieves a bit of this changes everything! power, but the movie bottoms out not long before that with a listless, unimaginative stroll across the frozen moon. An astronaut, hopelessly vulnerable, trudges out into the unknown—and all we get are indistinct first-person views of what looks like a rocky corridor. 2001 took us to space and gave us a hotel room beyond the infinite; Europa Report settles for a video game hallway.

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BLAST OFF!

With the recent retiring of NASA’s shuttles, space exploration in the United States seems to be on hold. Officially, anyway. Yet the Off-Broadway consortium Banana Bag & Bodice (brutal, stylish, wry) launches a new low-budget interstellar adventure in its latest performance piece, Space//Space, in which sibling and sexual rivalry occurs in close quarters. Having previously explored medieval monsters, futuristic sewers, and hallucinatory punk rock, playwright Jason Craig offers a tale of two brothers inserted Laika-like inside a small rocket. And then one of them transforms into a sister. Craig, Jessica Jelliffe, and Peter Blomquist star as the gender-ambiguous astronauts, and Dave Malloy supplies the soundtrack in Mallory Catlett’s production.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: June 8. Continues through July 1, 2012

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New Yorkers Have to Wait to See Their New Spacecraft

It looks like we’re going to have to re-mark our calendars for the arrival of Enterprise in our own backyard. And not the one from Star Trek, the one from NASA.

Due to an overcast prediction for Monday’s weather, the space agency is holding back on its transfer (“until further notice”) of the Enterprise from the Smithsonian in D.C. to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

That’s right – there’s about to be a space shuttle on the Hudson and, yes, its travel can be affected by human realities like rain. The new flight plan will be announced at one point this coming week but, for now, New Yorkers should just be on the lookout.

The delay has good intentions, though: NASA wants all of New York to see the landing of the Enterprise. Strapped to a 747 jet, the spacecraft will touch down in or around J.F.K. International Airport, remain there until June and then be taken via barge up the Hudson to Pier 86. There, a massive crane will lift it up onto the deck of the aircraft carrier (can we call it a spacecraft carrier now?). What a sight that will be.

It was announced in December that the Big Apple would be getting its own little taste of space and aeronautics history. With the Enterprise on its way out, the Smithsonian will replace it with the Discovery, a much more well-known and cooler spacecraft that can fly circles around Washington. But, hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Unfortunately, though, Enterprise is not exactly the real thing: the full-scale prototype was constructed a little over 35 years ago for novelty, like a concept car or an experimental art exhibit. Also, the entire Star Trek crew was there at the inauguration, making one believe that it was built by and for nerds.

Without an engine or heat shields, it became a museum piece from the moment it was made and its parts were used to build Columbia and Challenger. In other words, New Yorkers got the spare spacecraft.
That still does not invalidate the fact that, by summer, an enormous space shuttle will be sitting in plain view in the West. As if the fighter jets and sheer size of Intrepid wasn’t enough, the new attraction is sure to attract a whole new slew of visitors… and Star Trek fans.

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Best in Show: Lee Bontecou at Freedman Art

For more than half a century, Lee Bontecou has been peering into the cosmos. Her famously imposing three-dimensional vortexes of the early 1960s—grungy swaths of canvas stitched onto spiraling armatures—grabbed your attention with the gravitational strength of black holes. From the same period, in drawings and lithographs, spherical objects appeared as wayward moons or space capsules. Later she rendered odd creatures or weird plant life, and at MOMA last year, she introduced a spectacular structure of arcing filaments and porcelain knobs, suspended in space like a golden satellite.

Now, at age 80, she’s launching starships. Hung from the ceiling, several fish-shaped forms sail through the universe with curved bows that resemble wind-filled spinnakers. Bontecou made them by stretching small squares of old canvas between wire ribs, then covering the surfaces with white, NASA-like cladding (porcelain). Various features—rudders, landing gear, antennas, portholes—are charmingly abstracted with bits and pieces. If you look close enough at the center of one ship, you’ll find a cylindrical, Star Trek–ish engine. Elegant as mobiles, these voyagers also happen to be pretty good metaphors for the artist’s long, imaginative journey across the years.

On the floor below, like glimpses of a fertile planet, two sandboxes hold strange flora, assembled from a variety of material—spindly and spiky stalks, brittle gray flowers, geometric ferns, translucent pods. Throughout the gallery, graphite drawings demonstrate a longtime fascination with the swirling void. Never easy to categorize (which might account for a period of neglect, now happily corrected), Bontecou’s work keeps taking you to the outer limits.

Sue de Beer: Haunt Room

If you found Carsten Höller’s funhouse gimmicks at the New Museum nothing but child’s play, head over to the High Line, where Sue de Beer’s 14-sided chamber, Haunt Room, will mess up your body and mind, possibly conjuring ghosts. Step inside the empty space and listen to a kind of roaring, interrupted every so often by booms and buzzing. Your brain, eyeballs, and other organs will start to vibrate. Dizziness might follow, and then—for the particularly sensitive—apparitions.

Known for video installations of esoteric horror, de Beer is doing something simpler here, more direct. She’s pumping recordings of wind, thunder, and electronica through special speakers that envelop you with infrasound—low-frequency pitches below the human ear’s range but powerful enough to disturb the senses. Reported effects from researchers (one of whom inspired the artist) include odd chills and spectral visions. Conspiracists will talk about the Nazis and the CIA using such sonic waves for mind control. You might feel, in fact, as if you’ve emerged from some transformational sci-fi machine, like William Hurt in Altered States (one of de Beer’s favorite films, by the way). Without representational or conceptual guidance—except, perhaps, for the warnings posted outside—the art here is pure sensation, literally touching (and likely unnerving) your core. 14th Street Passage, the High Line, 212-500-6035, thehighline.org. Through December 4.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

A sweet contemplation on divine and personal faith, Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s 33-minute quasi-documentary, The Annunciation, follows a women’s support group acting out the moment in the Gospel of Luke when Mary learns from an angel God’s intent to impregnate her. Three surrounding screens, each showing a different view, place you in the middle of things. An earnest gal with dreadlocks, who has confessed her belief in immaculate conception, rehearses Mary’s astonishment at the news, while the angel tries on her wings and giddily practices flying in a harness. In the end, when everyone appears to become the characters they play, the biggest miracle is cinema itself.

Elsewhere, the artist examines nonhuman existence with video of a giant spruce. By presenting the tree on the horizontal and dividing it into six independently filmed segments that stretch across a wall, Ahtila lends surprising intimacy—and distinct spirituality—to an immense living thing we all take for granted. Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, 212-977-7160, mariangoodman.com. Through December 3.

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‘The Bunker Presents Function+Silent Servant+Grave Lady’

Dave “Function” Sumner has sturdy roots in the local rave scene–NASA, Storm Rave, Limelight–but calling him old-school is too simplistic. He’s honed his chops alongside the hard-techno Brits on Downwards Records, and now he’s part of the collective behind Berlin’s secretive-yet-influential label collective Sandwell District. Fellow Sandwellian Silent Sevant once manned NYC’s Cytrax label, a treasure trove for the more musical side of American minimal; he’s lately recorded with Grave Lady as Tropic of Cancer. With Clone artists A Made Up Sound, Literon and Steve Summers, and Kiss & Tell’s Bethany Benzur.

Fri., Dec. 17, 10 p.m., 2010

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Paparazzo Boy Meets Idealistic Girl in Alien Love Story, Monsters

A road-trip romance thick with sci-fi circumstance, Monsters imagines a bizarro-world present, in which a NASA probe has crashed, leaving part of Mexico “infected” with hostile, rapidly-breeding alien life. The monsters—something like massive octopi that can walk on their tentacles—have been quarantined from the States by a massive border fence. American newspapers will pay high five figures for a shot of a creature up close, or graphic images of their victims. Enter Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a scowling opportunist with a camera whose plan to cash in on the aliens’ seasonal migration is foiled when he’s forced to escort his boss’s lost tourist daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back to the U.S. border. He’s a mercenary paparazzo; she’s an idealist critical of his fuzzy morals. Opposites attract. Borrowing the handheld lensing and easy pace of a low-budget character piece, director Gareth Edwards, a CGI artist by trade, has created a dystopian landscape that’s so naturalistic, it’s uncanny. As a writer, he’s a less successful realist, resorting to some pretty hoary contrivances to get and keep his boy and girl in the same space for the film’s duration, and the largely improvised post-mumble performances don’t add much depth. The film peaks, dramatically and creatively, with an alien mating dance of astonishing verisimilitude. It’s a cheap-shot plot device, but also visually spectacular.

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OPERA UNDER THE STARS

Diane Paulus was all about letting the sun shine in when she directed the current Broadway revival of Hair; now, she’s turned her attention to the moon for a high-tech and starry-eyed staging of Haydn’s opera Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon). Under a 180-degree dome featuring laser lights and projections provided by NASA, the Gotham Chamber Opera tells the story of three sisters who hire a phony astronomer to convince their father he now lives on the moon, where marriage isn’t so strictly regulated as it is here on Earth. The gay-rights movement may want to try that approach next.

Tue., Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Jan. 20, 8 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 25, 8 p.m.; Tue., Jan. 26, 8 p.m.; Thu., Jan. 28, 8 p.m., 2010