Are we alone in the universe?
This is the question that drives some people to search the stars and others to question your sanity. “Why would there be others like us?” some may wonder, “For we are divine creatures thanks to a conscious creator.” Are we though? While that’s a great notion for philosophical, even theological, discussion, falling back on the idea that we’re alone in the universe makes about as much sense as continuing to believe that Earth is the center of the universe or that stars are filled with things we don’t know or can confirm, which is why scientists continue to explore space. The answers are out there, we need only look for them. This is where director Nathaniel Kahn of documentary The Hunt for Planet B comes in, tracking the development and testing of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) which is set to launch October 31st, 2021. The size and scope of the JWST requires the combined efforts of several countries and multiple facilities, as well as a team of incredible scientists and engineers, to assemble. Their excitement is, in a word, infectious and it spills out into Kahn’s documentary, pulling its audience inward while encouraging us to look upward.
To tell the story of JWST, Kahn uses a three-pronged approach: ecological need, scientific discovery, and a focus on the minds behind the quest for life on an exoplanet. Rather than just hit you with everything at once, Kahn weaves these three aspects together, putting together an approachable narrative for the scientifically curious but stupid (me) and the scientifically curious and knowledgeable (example: EoM editor Crystal Davidson). For example, there’s a wonderful moment during the discussion of just how strong the JWST is when Noble Prize winner and Senior Project Scientist John Mather informs us that the telescope is powerful enough to find a bumble bee on the moon. This sounds like an incredible notion, one which a plebian such as myself would find absolutely ridiculous. Amusingly, this sounds just as incredible to Dr. Jonathan W. Arenberg, Chief Engineer for Space Science Missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, who then works out the math (sped up by Kahn) and determines it to be accurate, laughing as he acknowledges it’s not a good idea to doubt a Noble Prize winner. The documentary is filled with moments like these which inform the audience about what the JWST can do and then some aspect of the science is either presented visually (for easier digestion) or comically (like when JWST Alignments Engineer Amy Lo uses LEGOs to illustrate a point).
The strongest piece of Planet B is Kahn’s insistence to talk about the quest for life on other planets through the people working on the project. Especially when so many on this planet are falling behind, why should we (as American tax payers or citizens of the world) care or invest in such an expense? Listen to Dr. Sara Seager, first introduced speaking to a U.S. government commission, discuss why she fell in love with astronomy and planetary research and how the quest to focus on exoplanets was derided throughout her education process. Yet, through determination and faith in science, her understanding of what we don’t know led to the confirmation of Trappist-1, a solar system similar to our own beyond our galaxy. Listen to Dr. Jill Tarter, renowned astronomer and basis for the character Elanor Arroway in director Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), who waxes poetic on how, if there is life on other planets, it has to have evolved past where we are now. That the fear of an alien species coming to Earth purely for the sake of enacting violence, while possible, is also as likely to be beyond that notion. Dr. Tarter suggests that in order to achieve space travel of that level, a civilization would have to have evolved past the pettiness and rivalries that we, on Earth, have yet to move past. These two and many of the other interviews Kahn engages in, mostly of the women scientists and engineers working on this project, discuss their excitement, their fears, and the absolute possibilities which come from what they could learn with a successful deployment of the JWST. Kahn doesn’t exactly dip into their personal lives, that would be, perhaps, a little too off-topic. For example, our introduction to Lo is her explaining how she and her husband purchase old cars, refurbish, and race them. This lets her develop projects where she can use her hands whereas her position on the team and the work she does on the JWST does not. Who doesn’t understand the psychological need to fulfil that drive of doing the thing you love professional and finding ways in your downtime to do that which your professional side doesn’t quite fulfil. Of course, Kahn’s following of Lo involves quite a few insights into the construction of the JWST and how her oversight of the project is trusted by each of the managers to whom she reports. JWST Program Director Gregory Robinson is interviewed as well, at one point speaking of the necessity of diversity within the program. In the same breath, he discusses how Lo’s seven-years of experience has proved vital to the success of the JWST project. With these insights, Kahn presents the humanity which drives NASA and its global equivalents to push beyond our soil, making incredible cases for why a project like this is necessary for Earth philosophically and physical well-being.
This is, perhaps, where Planet B loses some of its steam: the ecological angle. The intent of this is to showcase the increase of ecological downturn Earth has been experiencing within the last 100 years or so. It begins in the introduction of the documentary when Kahn shows the audience the view of Earth from the moon while providing snippets of news and television broadcasts from the 1970s which would be reaching Trappist-1 now. One of them is a clip from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson featuring Carl Sagan who is discussing the enormous need to change our global habits before we run out of resources or destroy the planet. Since the 1970s, the movement for ecological change has grown larger and louder, yet is often derided as overblown or hysteria, even with storms increasing in power and frequency. Same with weather systems never before dumping freezing or boiling temperatures to lands unequipped to handle it due to their location on the map. These aspects are woven in and out of Planet B, usually from a comment from one of the subjects, but often as a means of pointing out the necessity of finding a Planet B. This portion is intended to serve as a boost, a catalyst for a change in modern thinking from the audience. Unfortunately, it more often ruins the momentum of the documentary instead of converting minds. Especially when so many of the stories of the scientists and engineers, the principles of designing and executing JWST’s mission, tell stories about what inspired them to look beyond, the shift in focus casts a pallor over the film that diminishes that exuberance.
At the conclusion of the documentary, the JWST did not yet have a launch date. As of now, though we do, we still don’t know if the mission to deploy the telescope will be a success or whether it will report back any positive data. All we can do is look to the stars and hope. Among Trappist-1 there are two planets solidly in position within their solar system akin to Earth, potentially making those planets some 100 million miles away habitable. In 400 years the human race has gone from thinking that Earth was the center of all things to being on the precipice of learning whether there is live elsewhere in space. That feeling you have, that uncertainty, is excitement, excitement that runs throughout the individuals Kahn sheds light upon, as they explain the possibilities of what could come after a successful mission. That’s why we look to the stars in the first place, to better understand who we are right now. Will the mission be a success? No idea. But it is the first step to what’s next.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 18th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The Hunt for Planet B website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.