Truthfully, there are plenty of other films that have been shot in space, but they're documentaries with an educational bent produced by resource-rich studios like Disney or IMAX, with assistance from NASA. As part of their official training, astronauts learn basic photography skills -- concepts like exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus range, the rule of thirds -- but the crew members who work on the IMAX films receive more rigorous training. Even then, it's often only 25 hours total. Cinematographer James Neihouse, a veteran of large-format filmmaking who got his start helping IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson shoot underwater documentaries, runs these cinema bootcamps. Astronauts need to know everything about shooting IMAX because they're going to assume every role in the filmmaking process: When they get up in space, they're the actors, directors, sound and lighting technicians, cinematographers, grips, and the best boys.
Shooting a movie on Earth is already absurdly complicated, and going to space is even more complicated. Combining the two processes is an immense logistical, technical, and bureaucratic challenge, especially if you don't have your own private rocket-ship in your backyard. "As long as NASA has purview over the space missions, I can pretty much tell you the answer is going to be no," says Marsha Ivins, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of five space missions, when asked the space-movie question. "Because that's not what NASA's funded space program is about. It's about science."
In addition to being a human encyclopedia of space travel and photography knowledge, Ivins shot on IMAX film in space and more recently served as the liaison between NASA and the film crew for A Beautiful Planet, a 2016 documentary filmed aboard the International Space Station and the first IMAX space doc to use digital cameras as opposed to the bulkier film cameras. (The movie's director Toni Myers also helmed IMAX projects like 2002's Space Station 3D and 2010's Hubble.) On the older projects she worked on, Ivins remembers filming with an IMAX camera the size of "a small refrigerator" and using spools of film that were "the diameter of your steering wheel."
Getting those antiquated cameras onboard was an uphill battle. As Ivins explains to me over the phone, the first astronauts, like the crew-cut sporting, Air Force-trained pilots you meet in First Man, were not obsessing over the type of camera they would pack for their missions. Given the stakes, it's not surprising that the limited available space on a shuttle is fraught and political: Would you rather have extra food or photography equipment? NASA's history of still photography in the Apollo era states that when John Glenn became the first American to go into orbit, the mere idea of bringing a camera was "an afterthought."
Growing up with a darkroom in her house, Ivins was interested in photography long before she got to NASA. "I was developing pictures from as early I could stand on the stool and reach the sink," she says. When she arrived at the office in 1984, she had to fight to convince the larger engineering community that imagery was an important part of their jobs. "It's the only thing you bring back to the taxpayer, truly," she explains, still irked that her colleagues were less enthusiastic about documenting their travels. "If you look at all of the people who have flown in space, there are probably two dozen that are really interested in photography. Not a lot."