‘Interstellar’ shows why Alabama should keep reaching for the stars

A few decades ago, visitors driving into Huntsville were greeted by a colorful roadside billboard boldly proclaiming that they had just entered the “space capital of the universe.”
That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, doesn’t it? Sure, the city had a lot to be proud of during those early years of space exploration — Werner Von Braun’s headquarters, Jupiter rockets, Atlas boosters and such — but declaring universal dominance, literally, is perhaps a little audacious.  
But maybe audacity is exactly what’s needed to reach the stars, and a new film from Christopher Nolan might be just what’s needed to inspire it. “Interstellar” shows how love and fear finally push mankind to undertake an unpopular, unproven and risky leap into the universe.  
Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut-turned-farmer in a future where a crop disease has decimated our food supply. Nations are struggling to feed their citizens amid a global dust bowl. Governments have cast aside extravagances like research and development in favor of necessities like food and water. But along the way mankind turned its back on the stars, science and ultimately, its own potential.  
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” McConaughey’s character says from the porch of his farmhouse. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
The story takes off from there, taking viewers on an exploration of mind-bending theoretical astrophysics and the familiar complexities of the human heart. While it’s certainly an entertaining ride full of stunning visuals, there are some important lessons to be learned, and about more than just time dilation and worm holes.

After an unexplained upheaval due to the famine, most of humanity is playing it safe. Governments still function, but it appears they’re more interested in spending what little time and resources remain on producing food rather than a seemingly impractical dream of relocating to another world.

It’s a problem we can empathize with back here in the real world. While the circumstances aren’t as stark, it’s hard to argue for more government spending on space exploration when we’re so deeply in debt and have other competing priorities. But as the film shows, while we’re down here toiling in the dirt, we cannot forget that we’re meant for more.
“We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible,” McConaughey’s character says. “But we lost all that, or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers.”
Not in Alabama, we haven’t. At least not yet.
Last month it was learned that Huntsville’s leaders have started thinking about establishing a space academy in the Rocket City.
“Some city, some day in America is going to wake up and say, hey we have got a Military Academy, Air Force Academy and a Naval Academy, we should have a space academy,” said Space and Rocket Center CEO Dr. Deborah Barnhart, in an interview with WHNT News 19. “We think Huntsville is the best fit for this type of academy and we are working to make that a reality.”
While the initiative remains in its earliest stages, Nolan would surely like the idea.
“I grew up in an era where there was still a lot of excitement around the space program,” Nolan said in a recent interview. “As a child, the highest aspiration of a kid growing up in the 70s was to be an astronaut. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Nolan added that the lack of increased exploration isn’t because of a lack of advancement, but a lack of direction. “I think the last couple of decades there has been huge technical progress but a lot of it has been what’s in our pockets, what’s in our living rooms … it’s time to take some of those great minds and great innovations and spread them outwards, out into the wider universe.”

Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, we could use a little infusion of the audacity that went into that “space capital of the universe” billboard. Otherwise the four most discouraging words in the cosmos — it cannot be done — will weigh us down until all we see is the dirt under our feet.

Originally published in the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times.