NASA's Movie and TV Guru Explains How Hollywood Goes to Space

Jordan Zakarin

When Hollywood wants to visit outer space, it often turns to NASA’s Bert Ulrich to help them get there.

As the agency’s multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations, Ulrich helps facilitate and guide the massive demand for resources, insight, and permissions that NASA receives from the entertainment industry.

“[The requests run] the gamut from providing footage to permitting shooting on site,” Ulrich told Yahoo Movies last week. “If the movie is about climate change, we’ll try to hook them up with some climate-change scientists. If it deals with astronauts, we’ll try to have them talk with astronauts. Often they’ll go on tours of our facilities.”

Ulrich deals with over 100 documentaries and more than a handful of fiction films a year, and says that in the nine years he’s worked in the department, he’s busier than ever. Most productions approach NASA, but occasionally, the agency will reach out on its own.

“If we catch wind of a movie, we’ll reach out to a production as well, so we can say we’re here if you need any help,” Ulrich said. “Of course, we respect the creativity of the director and producer. If they want to have their independence, then by all means, we’re not gonna force them.”

Notably, the agency was hardly involved with any aspect of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming epic Interstellar, which puts a fictionalized (and largely dismantled) NASA at the center of its story. The film depicts the agency working underground, scraping together supplies on a threadbare budget so as to not enrage a starved population.

Nolan worked closely with famed theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on the science at the heart of the film’s futuristic adventure, and a former astronaut advised as well, but the filmmaker did not approach NASA, save for minor permissions.

“We did help them with footage, clearing footage and rights and stuff like that, although we really weren’t involved with the actual production,” Ulrich explained. “If a movie wants to go for accuracy, we’re there to help them, and we’re also here to provide them with scientists or astronauts to get it right, or other NASA personnel. But if they don’t, that’s fine, too.”

Last year’s big space epic, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, also tapped NASA for footage clearance, but likewise did little engaging with the agency for the core elements of the picture (though an astronaut did work with star Sandra Bullock on understanding what it’s like to be in space).

“I think Alfonso Cuaron wanted to have his artistic liberty, and we respected that,” Ulrich said. “But at the end, they came to us about logo use, which we permitted, and the movie was great.”

Some filmmakers and TV producers ask for far more involvement, including some you might not expect. Though the popcorn flick was about Bruce Willis using an oil drill to stop an asteroid from destroying earth, director Michael Bay worked closely with NASA on Armageddon to make accurate what elements he could, and returned to the agency for help on Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Sure, it was a movie about gigantic alien robots who disguise themselves as slick brand name cars, but the often-maligned Bay still did his best to get certain aspects right. “He actually visited with us and went through the storyline and wanted to incorporate NASA and wanted to keep NASA relevant,” Ulrich said, providing a perfect capsule explanation for why his agency is happy to facilitate the production of such far-out fantasy flicks.

“I think film and TV helps people think about going into space and can inspire them, because a lot of these productions are inspirational, and there’s a byproduct there that we really benefit from,” Ulrich said. “If you talk to a lot of astronauts and scientists that are currently working at NASA, the inspiration for them was that they saw scientists and astronauts on television and in [sci-fi] films as kids.”

The last few years have been a mixed bag for NASA; while the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars excited the public in 2012, just a year prior, the agency shut down the space shuttle program, with a sort of victory lap tour that signaled to some that NASA was closing altogether. As a result, Ulrich’s relationships led to several producers proactively working to include NASA’s priorities in its storylines.

“I think right after the shuttle ending, that there was a feeling that people thought NASA didn’t exist, and I got call from the producer of The Big Bang Theory, Bill Prady, who said we want to make sure people know NASA is alive,” Ulrich said. “ That’s why he put a storyline [about] the International Space Station [in the show] … that was almost like a gift from Bill Prady.”

A general meeting with the producers behind MythBusters, who were in search of different storylines for their upcoming season, also led to some important public debunking on behalf of the agency.

“At one point, everyone was saying that we faked the moon landing,“ Ulrich recalled. "I think there was some documentary about that … there was a large percentage of the population that thought we didn’t go to the moon. We told [MythBusters] that where you could really help us is to debunk the moon hoax, and they did a whole episode around that, which was really great.”

Early in Interstellar, there is a scene in which a teacher tells Matthew McConaughey, who plays a former NASA pilot, that the Apollo program was a hoax meant to bankrupt the Soviet Union. McConaughey’s Cooper shoots the idea down, and the film later proves that NASA’s travel is very, very real. Ulrich, though, couldn’t comment on that, as he can neither endorse nor criticize any movie in his official capacity.

They do, however, work to educate a public that becomes more curious after a film like Interstellar is released; they receive an influx of press requests and other inquiries, and often put up special sections on its website to explain the science behind the film. The section dealing with Gravity was especially voluminous, and featured videos of astronauts speaking with star Sandra Bullock.

The agency has suffered its share of tragedies over the years, which are often fodder for shows both fact-based and fictional. Ulrich says NASA does its best to accommodate the producers of those films, as well.

“We have to be open,” he pledges. “People want to document something like the Challenger accident or the Columbia tragedy, they can. We open our doors for that.”

For the most part, Ulrich hasn’t had to worry much about those sorts of portrayals in movies, in part because — much like many staffers at NASA — several filmmakers were inspired to pursue their profession by Star Wars and the moon landing, seminal events that continue to shape the way we see space on screen.

“I have to honestly say that, in the tech age, the nerd age that we’re in, we are benefitting greatly,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of interest from the TV and film communities to do things that deal with space exploration, more so than ever before. I think there are great productions that have also propelled the interest in space exploration, as well.”