Set in the not-too-distant future, James Gray’s Ad Astra (which in Latin means “To the Stars”) takes us on an interstellar and introspective space adventure.

The film centers on Brad Pitt as Col. Roy McBride, a decorated astronaut who has spent much of his career in space. When the Earth, however, is besieged by mysterious electrical surges, threatening to tear apart the fabric of the galaxy, Roy is sent on a mission to try and reach his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who had gone rogue on a search for intelligent life and was presumed lost but whose ship is now believed to be the cause.

Thing is, Gray’s gorgeous depiction of deep space as Pitt’s McBride makes his journey from a colonized Moon, to the underground community on Mars and then beyond is rooted in real science and space exploration that NASA and JPL are currently pursuing.

At a special panel event on the Fox Studio, ScreenPicks sat in on two fascinating panels with NASA and JPL scientists, engineers — and even a real-life astronaut – who all discussed the strides they are taking in deep space travel.

The first panel was moderated by Ad Astra screenwriter Ethan Gross, and was titled “From Apollo to Artemis: Back to the Moon. It consisted of an all-female panel of NASA specialists, including Lara Kearney, Deputy Program Manager, Gateway Program; Nujoud Merancy, Chief, Exploration Mission Planning Office; Jessica Vos, Orion Crew Systems Engineer; and Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

Here are some highlights from the first panel:

  • That’s right, we’re going back to the Moon, y’all! The entire operation is called Artemis, and NASA’s first step is to establish the Gateway Program, which is a satellite platform that can orbit both Earth and the Moon. This will be where they will launch Landers on the Moon’s surface where they’ll construct a facility to be able to launch us to Mars.
  • To build Gateway, NASA will send a spaceship called the Orion. At first, the Orion will be capable of piloting without a human crew and launches will be done with an auto-pilot. Humans will, of course, eventually lead the Orion. Target date for the first manned launch: 2024.
  • NASA is also developing sustainability for deep space travel. NASA has detected frozen water underneath the Moon’s surface, and this could be converted into both oxygen and hydrogen fuel. As well, studies are being conducted on the long-term effects of space travel on the human body. Radiation is the biggest risk, so astronauts must endure periods of exposure to get them ready.
  • No offense to the other women on the panel, but the most fascinating tidbits came from Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson (who will probably be the first woman to step on the Moon’s surface in 2024). Dyson’s longest stint in space so far has been on the International Space Station (she was there roughly six months), and when asked what the view was really like from up there, she gave a beautiful and detailed description. She said Gravity was the only film she’s seen that truly depicted the clarity of the views from space. In real life, it is astonishing and breathtaking – and overwhelming at times. It also made her realize how much we have to love and protect our planet.
  • Dyson explained, “Once you go to space, you develop a deep love for the planet that you live on, and also a feeling that you need to work harder than ever to save it. And it stays with you for a long time. I think that if more people could experience looking at Earth from space they would understand. If we are going to fix this planet, and if we have to leave it, we as humans all have to do it together.”

  • She added, “In space, if you look at the stars long enough you can see that they are solid orbs, and you can sense the depth between them. The first time I looked at them, I started crying – which because it’s space, meant they came out of my face in globs. Everything was blurry!”
  • Oh, and no commercial flights to the Moon are planned (as yet). Richard Branson and Elon Musk are going to have to wait. However, the women did say that collaboration for this entire operation is a global effort, with other countries and private-sector corporations involved.

Moving onto the second panel, titled “Ad Astra and Deep Space,” this lively conversation was moderated by the hilarious James Gray and focused mostly on our efforts to explore Mars. The panelists included: Laura Kerber, Planetary Scientist, JPL; Rob Manning, JPL Chief Engineer; and Steve Lee, Curiosity Rover Deputy Project Manager, JPL.

Here are highlights from the second panel:

  • Gray wasn’t particularly interested in reading from his prepared list of questions so most of his queries were off the cuff. Like when he asked whatever happened with the stories that they found life on Mars? The panelists explained that NASA is still investigating, and it’s one of the main motivations for getting us to the Red Planet. They all believe in the possibility they will find such evidence because as Rob Manning put it, “Life is tenacious!”
  • They also spoke about what they’ve discovered so far on Mars. Curiosity discovered that the Gale crater on Mars once contained a lake that had actual liquid drinking water. If that’s truly the case, then the water might still exist beneath Mars’ crust in a frozen state. Their plan is to send a new Rover, along with a helicopter-drone, to Mars in 2020 for more research.
  • Talk also veered into the idea of intelligent life on other planets in the galaxy, referencing the Drake Equation and Fermi Paradox. But the panelists also lamented the fact that movies and TV often project space exploration and the discovery of intelligent life in a very dramatic way – sometimes with dire consequences.
  • Steve Lee said, “We get very stressed out when movies like Gravity, or The Martian, or even The Andromeda Strain come out, because then we have to spend millions of dollars on more research to prove to the public that those sorts of accidents won’t happen!”
  • As for some of the space movies that have inspired the panelists, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was mentioned a few times. As was films like Star Wars and Titan A.E.

  • The ultimate plan is to have humans on Mars in the 2030s, although Manning feels like that might be a tad too optimistic. Still, once that’s accomplished, the next step could be to try and land on asteroids for mining purposes and then beyond. Manning’s dream is we get to Jupiter’s moon, Titan!
  • And going back to what Dyson said about crying in space and how that actually works, Gray had to admit he didn’t follow protocol when it came to showing emotions. There’s a moment in Ad Astra in which Brad Pitt’s McBride tears up while out and about.
  • Gray explained, “We shot this beautiful scene where Brad Pitt cries in space and he told me I had to take it out because he was supposed to be in zero gravity and his tears wouldn’t fall like that but I said “No! The acting is too good! They stay!” So I’m sorry in advance for this inaccuracy.”

Check out Ad Astra in theaters now!