Decades ago, before billionaires could hitchhike in orbit, space exploration seemed like a more poetic endeavor.
I grew up in Dickinson, less than ten miles from NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, when it was still easy to name all the astronauts who trained there. I went to church and school with kids whose fathers were in the protected brigade of genius engineers, including flight director Gene Kranz, the guy Ed Harris portrayed in Apollo 13.
As a college student in the 1970s, I had a summer gig as a proofreader at the Lunar Science Institute in the “Diamond Jim” West Mansion just east of the back door of The NASA. Cheerful, slovenly, caffeinated scientists worked nights in a room a few steps from my office, sharing time on a massive mainframe and churning out articles on moon rocks and soil samples. I only vaguely understood their work, but it seemed important to me, and I kept their nouns and verbs in agreement and their capitals and commas in place.
At that time, everyone knew what the Earth looked like from space; the famous “Blue Marble” photograph of the crew of Apollo 17, who turns fifty next December, had become ubiquitous. Today, close-up views of our planet are streamed from the International Space Station on freely accessible cell phones and laptops, like so much other 21st century equipment born of our ability to toss gadgets into the sky. I wonder if anyone will remember the meaning of this first image of the whole Earth.
“The Infinite,” a new virtual reality encounter, aims to rekindle that old sense of wonder. It might even give you the “Bird’s-eye View Effect,” a visceral moment of clarity that astronauts often experience when gazing at our planet from afar – a quasi-spiritual view of humanity as a unique species on a wispy, vulnerable blue ball in the universe.
Installed at Sawyer Yards in Houston until February 20 (then heading to Seattle), “The Infinite” was filmed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station between January 2019 and September 2021. Using a custom video camera that produces ultra-high definition, 3D, 360-degree views, they recorded short scenes outside (and inside, filmed with a smaller 360-degree camera) of the ISS for show how they live and work, as well as glimpses of Earth and the outer reaches of space from laboratory orbit. Some of this material was released last year as a four-part film series, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, by Felix & Paul studios in Montreal (which also designed the outdoor camera) and TimeStudios. The Space Explorers series won the Emmy for Best Interactive Program last year.
I love a good VR event. One of the best places I’ve been is art: “To The Moon” by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang offers a fantastical moonscape with dinosaurs materializing from strands of DNA and asteroids that turn into black diamonds. “The Infinite” is something else – truly virtual reality.
The entrance to the exhibition, however, is inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. With a small group of strangers, I walked up a ramp through a shiny white vinyl room into a metal bedroom where lights flickered through the seams of the walls. As the sliding doors closed, we heard the voice of astronaut Anne McClain, describing how raw she felt just before launching into space. A countdown ignited our juices. When the doors opened into a huge dark room, we removed our sanitized headsets from the eerily lit floor-to-ceiling tubes. About a minute later, I dissolved into stardust and reformed into a female avatar with a bright green skin grid.
A transparent rendering of the ISS hovered in the center of the room. Ambient beeps and station transmissions alternated with a celestial soundtrack in my headphones. I had to force myself to “walk through” the walls of the render – a disconcerting feeling from the get-go – to reach the interactive portal orbs inside. Each time you touch the orb, a different 360-degree filmed scene appears. The show’s sixty portals are loosely organized into seven-minute chapters with inspirational names: “Adaptation”, “Progress”, “Unity”, “Expansion”. Portals are spaced around the room, roughly the points on the station’s floor plan where they were filmed, and visitors choose which ones they will open. Nobody can reach sixty during the 35 minutes of the show, so every trip is different. One of the organizers told me that it took him six visits to find all the material. It would be expensive (adult tickets cost between $36 and $65; children, students and seniors pay less).
I was literally lost in space, wandering cluelessly through the virtual lab on my first visit, and barely more oriented on a second. “The Infinite” dwells on the human aspects of life on the ISS – what it means to live and work 260 miles above the Earth’s surface in a craft configured as a plumbing fixture under a kitchen sink. kitchen and suspended from a truss structure the length of a football field. Even seemingly insignificant details absorbed me: rows of commemorative mission stickers affixed to surfaces; the Velcro straps everywhere, essential for keeping practically everything in place, including toothbrushes, laptops and keys; the way long hair floats, like Medusa, around faces.
The station’s tube pods are cramped, with no discernable floors or ceilings and no real top or bottom, just four walls covered in a bewildering jumble of wires, monitors, consoles, cargo bays, and supply bags. This is not a place for minimalists or claustrophobes. And then there’s the constant dance with microgravity. Astronauts drift gracefully through the station’s tunnels like khaki-clad sea creatures, hooking their sock-covered feet under toeholds or grabbing handles when they need to stand still or maneuver through modules.
I’ve watched them kick a soccer ball, share a meal, jog on a treadmill, explain how their “addiction” works, say goodbye to departing teammates, and keep an eye on the millions of science experiments lying around walls. I followed them into the cupola, an observation capsule that contains the station’s only windows. Life on the ISS is a wild mix of the unimaginable and the mundane. Housekeeping never stops. Internet service is sketchy. One-on-one time with families is sacred.
Preparing for an EVA, or extravehicular activity, that is to say a spacewalk, takes weeks: the suits must be prepared, each movement planned. Just getting dressed takes hours. Visitors to “The Infinite”, however, can walk through the transparent walls of the virtual ISS to be “outside” in seconds. A few orbs beckoned to me from somewhere near the lattice structure, and I went to get them. I knew my boots were firmly planted on a lightly carpeted floor, but I still felt disembodied and dwarfed by a tower of panels glinting in the sun. An arm’s length away, other parts of the ISS looked shockingly like Rube Goldberg, complete with wires, sensors, satellite dishes and the lanky robotic arms that grab incoming cargo and crew vehicles. I was close enough to read the logos on the exteriors of the modules – JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), ESA (European Space Agency), SpaceX.
Then I looked down, and it drove me crazy. Earth! A living blue, immense and luminous under vaporous brushstrokes of clouds, organic and palpably alive. My eyes watered, then I felt dizzy. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful: something about the whole planet transcended the chaos I knew humans were inflicting on it and themselves – something profound and hopeful. The overview effect.
I could have stayed all day, but a voice in the headphones instructed me to follow a path of light to a chair where I would see the final scene. He took me out of the station again to “participate” in an EVA that was filmed last September. In real time, Japanese Akihiko Hoshide and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet accomplished what would have been a mundane task had they not been strapped to a machine moving at over 17,000 miles per hour. They were installing a support on the truss structure, a full day’s work. I was only there for a few minutes ride, mesmerized by their movements but free to look beyond them, to Earth. When the scene ended, I felt like I could still walk on air.
I didn’t expect “The Infinite” to flip switches in my brain. It had been light years since I had breathed the air of the first NASA Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, watching every launch and landing on TV. I’ve been watching YouTube videos shot from the ISS for days, hoping to regain a sense of Earth as a miraculously contained sphere. Even when the views are impressive, on my ordinary screen the world remains stubbornly flat.