WHITTINGTON: Lucy In The Sky Does A Disservice To Female Astronauts

Mark Whittington Contributor
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Fox Searchlight has released a trailer for the upcoming film “Lucy in the Sky,” starring Natalie Portman as a female astronaut who, having returned from a long-duration space mission, loses her mind, has an unwise affair with a fellow NASA astronaut, played by Jon Hamm, and destroys her family. The movie is loosely based on the story of Lisa Nowak. Both facts concerning the movie make it problematic.

Back when the movie was called Pale Blue Dot and starred Reese Witherspoon, Marsha Ivins penned a piece in Time Magazine taking issue with the idea that astronauts of either gender returning from space suffer from any kind of mental illness. Ivins has some authority in this matter because she is, obviously, a woman, flew five times on the space shuttle, and has access to NASA psychologists.

Indeed, as Frank White pointed out in his study “The Overview Effect,” space travel often has very positive effects on those who undertake it.  People who see the Earth from orbit and especially from the surface of the moon experience radical shifts in consciousness that cause them to appreciate the beauty of the home planet and the interconnectedness of human beings. For some the experience has taken on a religious dimension. No one who has ever been in space has gone insane because of the experience of traveling in space.

Of all the female astronauts whose stories might make great big-screen material, why did the film makers choose Lisa Nowak? Nowak is infamous for having conducted an extramarital affair with a fellow astronaut named William Oefelein. When Oefelein broke off the affair and started a relationship with an Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, Nowak drove nonstop from Houston to Orlando, wearing an adult diaper to avoid time for bathroom breaks, and attempted to kidnap Shipman.

Nowak was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping and murder. She was able to plead down to felony burglary of a car and misdemeanor battery. She lost her job at NASA and her commission as a captain in the United States Navy.

In no way was Nowak’s alarming behavior the result of her single space shuttle mission. She seemed to be driven by run-of-the-mill sexual obsession. The incident did cause some soul searching at NASA about psychological screening of astronaut candidates.

The narrative of Lucy in the Sky would seem to offer an off-putting message for girls and women who dream of becoming astronauts. Best to choose a career path that is more suitable for a lady, such as corporate lawyer or performance artist.

A lot of female astronauts have more uplifting life stories than that of Lisa Nowak. Sally Ride, naturally, comes to mind. So does Judy Resnik, who died on the Challenger. Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.

A great story about a woman space traveler does not concern a NASA astronaut at all. Anousheh Ansari’s family was forced to flee Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. Ansari eventually found herself in Texas, where she started and grew two high-tech businesses. She helped to fund the Ansari X Prize that led to the first series of suborbital flights of a private spacecraft.

Most importantly, Ansari paid her own way for a trip to the International Space Station, where she performed several experiments. Incidentally, she served as an inspiration to girls and women across the planet, especially in her native Iran, where they are not particularly valued by the ruling regime. Ansari remains to this day an advocate for private spaceflight and STEM education.

Ansari penned an account of her experiences in a book, “My Dream of Stars,” with the help of author Homer Hickam. The book would serve as excellent source material for a major motion picture if Hollywood were of a mind to make a more positive film about a woman who voyaged into space.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.