CAPE CANAVERAL, FL—This weeks marks the 20th anniversary of the premier of Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel. The story centered around Dr. Eleanor Arroway, who leads the discovery and deciphering of an extraterrestrial signal from the star system, Vega. Using the data sent from what seemed to be an advanced civilization, the United States and partnering nations built a human transport system at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
In the film, Launch Complex 39A is the site of what’s referred to as the most complex and expensive project ever undertaken by mankind. The filmmakers probably chose the site due to its historical significance. It was the pad used to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the walk on moon and later used to launch NASA’s fleet of Space Shuttles to place the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as parts of the International Space Station, in Earth’s orbit.
After nearly six years of inactivity, the site was brought back to life in 2017 by the Elon Musk-founded spaceflight company SpaceX. The company even made history this year by using Pad 39A to launch the first-ever reusable rocket to orbit on a second mission. It was another step for a company whose ultimate vision is to make humanity a multi-planetary species and whose first destination is our neighboring world, Mars.
In the film Contact, Kennedy Space Center is seen through the eyes of the media who are covering the event. Among the usual staples in the film, is the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the Saturn V moon rocket and the Space Shuttles were prepped before their missions. It is the largest single-story building in the world.
For the film, the VAB was digitally redecorated to represent the International Machine Consortium (IMC)—the fictional organization assembled to oversee the mission and the building of the machine. Today, in the real world, renovations are being completed at Vehicle Assembly Building to host NASA’s next rocket, the Space Launch System. The powerful heavy-lift rocket will be used to launch crewed missions to the moon and one day, Mars.
In the shadow of the Vehicle Assembly Building is the NASA Press Site. The area is used by space reporters and journalists from around the world to report on the most important missions at Kennedy Space Center. In the film, the media frenzy that occupies the press site is unlike anything seen since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Today, it doesn’t come nearly close to the amount of media seen in the movie or in the glory days of Apollo and the Shuttle. The Observer is one of the few media outlets on-site regularly.
Launch Complex 39A is almost unrecognizable in the film Contact. The giant machine is made up of four rings (three of them spinning) designed by the filmmakers to be larger than anything ever hosted at the pad. One reporter in the film questions if the project may be beyond our technological capability and too dangerous for humans. The scenes featuring Kennedy Space Center depict the moments before a test of the alien machine was supposed to occur.
President Clinton’s former Science Advisor, David Drumlin, is seen speaking with the media at the press site then later, inside the machine’s launch tower overseeing pre-flight tests. Drumlin beat out Dr. Arroway to be the machine’s sole passenger because of her non-belief in some form of deity, which the deciding council believed didn’t represent the majority of human civilization. At this point in the film, it’s still unclear what the machine actually does and where that passenger is going. There was only a single spherical vehicle designed for one occupant and the design shows the “ball” dropping through the giant spinning rings.
Inside NASA’s mission control facility adjacent to the Vehicle Assembly Building, Dr. Arroway is working as part of the pre-flight test team. Dr. Drumlin is on camera inside the machine’s launch chamber as IMC crews are prepping a dummy that would sit inside the sphere for the drop tests. Moments before the test is supposed to occur, Dr. Arroway notices someone who shouldn’t be there: a religious fanatic she previously encountered when the discovery was initially made. It was a young, blond-haired man who was once protesting against the scientists involved in the project. “Are these the kind of people you want speaking to your god for you?” he yelled over a microphone as Arroway drove by.
Arroway, remembering the protest, immediately warns Drumlin about the intruder. Chaos ensued when Drumlin and others discovered that the man had a trigger in his hand. While crew members tried to apprehend and disarm him, he detonated a suicide vest strapped to his chest. The explosion destroys the machine and sends debris flying toward the press site. Drumlin and many others are killed and the trillion-dollar project goes up in flames.
The film Contact ends on a more hopeful note when a second machine is discovered on an island in the south pacific built by Japanese subcontractors. Arroway is chosen for the mission. When launched, the sphere travels through the rings and into the pool below, lasting only seconds. At least that’s what is seen on Earth. Arroway, in testimony to a skeptical Congress following the event, claimed she was gone for 18 hours. Her video equipment did in-fact record 18 hours of static but was classified by the U.S government.
Robin Seemangal has been reporting from the newsroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the last two years for the Observer with by-lines also in Popular Science and Wired Magazine. He does in-depth coverage of SpaceX launches as well as Elon Musk’s mission to send humans to Mars. Robin has appeared on BBC, Russia Today, NPR‘s ‘Are We There Yet’ Podcast, and radio stations around the world to discuss space exploration.