10 Great Movies About Space Travel That Aren’t Sci-Fi
Most movies that involve traveling through space belong to the science-fiction genre. These movies will often be set in the future or sometimes an alternate version of the past. They’ll usually present some form of technology that hasn’t been invented or fully developed yet in real life, and as such, it’s a genre that often speculates about where society could be at some point down the line. Not all science-fiction movies are fantastical, and some are wilder than others. They all have something that makes them distinct from reality, though—after all, that’s what the “fiction” part of “science-fiction” refers to.
Given space travel is something that did become a reality in the 20th century, not all movies about characters going to space will be science-fiction. Historically accurate or more down-to-earth films about going to space are much rarer than their more out-there counterparts but aren’t unheard of. These movies all show that more realistic takes on space travel movies can be just as exciting as those that belong in the sci-fi genre.
‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)
Hidden Figures is a film that spends time with characters on the ground while discussing space travel. Namely, it looks at those who worked behind the scenes at NASA during the early 1960s, which was right around when American astronauts first traveled to space.
The movie’s story focuses on three Black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians during this period and how they were looked down upon or overlooked in a male-dominated workplace and at a time when things were segregated based on race. Its focus is on racial and gender issues, but it’s based on a true story about how these mathematicians were instrumental in NASA’s early years, featuring space travel in that way.
‘Space Cowboys’ (2000)
An underrated and overlooked film within Clint Eastwood’s filmography, Space Cowboys, is the rare movie about space travel that’s neither sci-fi nor based on true historical events. It centers on several old men who used to be pilots/astronauts in their youth who are asked some 40 years later to undertake a repair job on a satellite in space that no one else is as qualified to do.
It’s something of an action-adventure film, but not to the extent where it ventures into science fiction. As such, it walks an interesting line in the pantheon of movies set in space because it could feasibly have happened in the year 2000 without actually having happened.
‘The Right Stuff’ (1983)
Focusing on the very earliest American astronauts in history, The Right Stuff mostly takes place in the 1950s and, as a result, doesn’t feature a huge amount of space travel. It’s more about the early stages of preparing a group of pilots to become astronauts, with the main characters all fighting to make the dream of taking a flight to space a reality.
With a runtime that’s over three hours, it’s certainly a long movie, but it’s a rewarding one. The characters are memorable, the pace is very good (thanks to the story covering a ton of ground/years), the score’s iconic, and it looks great visually. It’s a movie that indeed has all the right stuff, even though it was, unfortunately, less than successful at the box office upon release.
‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ (2007)
A critically-acclaimed documentary with a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, In the Shadow of the Moon, is one of many documentaries about the various Apollo missions to the moon. It also shouldn’t be mixed up with the film of the same name, released in 2019, a sci-fi-themed movie that doesn’t exactly focus on space travel.
As great as biopics or historical movies about traveling to the moon can be, few things beat the real footage of NASA and its astronauts on the moon. As such, In the Shadow of the Moon offers plenty of great images from the moon’s surface and also benefits from featuring many interviews conducted with ex-astronauts of the Apollo missions who were still alive in 2007.
‘The Dish’ (2000)
A villain-free movie that still has stakes, The Dish presents a unique story about space travel by choosing an unexpected group of people to focus on. The film is set in a remote town in Australia as the Apollo 11 mission to the moon is underway. The town’s gigantic satellite dish must be used to broadcast the images of the moon landing worldwide on live television.
It’s a historical drama that also functions as a comedy, given The Dish‘s light tone and humorous characters. Plenty of things go wrong while ensuring everything is just right for the world to see the first moon landing, but thankfully, history tells us that everything worked out in the end when it came to the broadcast.
‘Apollo 13’ (1995)
While there’s no shortage of movies that begin with the word “Apollo,” few are as well-known as Apollo 13. This movie depicts the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that was intended to take its astronauts to the moon, but had to abort it because of an explosion while in space.
As such, those on Earth had to think fast to get those on-board back home, which is what Apollo 13 ends up dramatizing. Its all-star cast and ambitious production ensured that it was a huge hit, and as far as non-fiction movies about space travel go, it remains undoubtedly one of the most famous.
‘Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood’ (2022)
Admittedly, the underrated and overlooked Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood veers close to feeling like science fiction. After all, part of this coming-of-age film set in Houston during the late 1960s involves a child being trained as an astronaut to be sent to the moon, which isn’t based on historical fact.
Still, it’s easy (and arguably necessary) to read these scenes as unbelievable or imagined by the movie’s main character. After all, every other part of the movie is very down-to-earth and feels inspired by the director’s (Richard Linklater) real-life childhood. The idea of someone going to the moon got a lot of people – particularly kids – very excited, so who can blame the film’s protagonist for imagining himself as one of the astronauts?
‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage’ (1980)
As its title implies, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage takes a more intimate, metaphorical take on traveling to space/exploring the universe. It was a miniseries written and presented by astronomer Carl Sagan and took an approach towards space-themed topics that were educational, entertaining, and imaginative all at once.
It takes more than one sitting to get through all 13 of its parts, but for a miniseries made over 40 years ago, it was very cinematic and eye-opening stuff. Part of this comes from the innovative special effects and the music, much of it being by Vangelis, who often composed scores for movies (one of his best-known being Blade Runner).
‘First Man’ (2018)
What Apollo 13 did for the real-life mission of the same name, First Man does for the Apollo 11 mission. It focuses on the career of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, as an astronaut at NASA, starting well before 1969 but building up to that flight to the moon, using the dramatic Apollo 11 mission as its climax.
It’s a movie that feels a little slow, partly due to the 141-minute runtime, and its tone is quite cold and detached. This is intentional, helping to show how stern and calculating those as NASA sometimes had to be, but it can make it a little harder to get emotionally invested. Still, a lot can be forgiven when it comes to the final half hour, as the dramatization of the Apollo 11 mission is spectacularly done.
‘Apollo 11’ (2019)
Apollo 11 would make a great double feature with First Man. This film also explores the Apollo 11 mission (obviously) but does so in a documentary format. Not only that, but it does so in a way that doesn’t utilize a narrator or traditional interviews and, as such, does a great job at making you feel like you were there in 1969.
For anyone born after 1969, the best way to understand the excitement and nervousness around the first manned trip to the moon. The footage and audio have also been cleaned up incredibly, with a striking and immersive presentation.
KEEP READING: The Best Science-Fiction Movies That Aren’t Set in The Future