The story of the men and women who live inside the International Space Station, their stories played out against the vast, beautiful, bottomless, darkness of the universe.
There are myriad tiny details about living and working in space that surprise me, though it never occurred to me that kidney stones would mean a lifetime ban on blasting off. That’s what happened to Ginger Kerrick, who applied to the astronaut programme in the 1990s and was turned down. Instead she started working in key support functions, and talks warmly about the “family” they became, she and the astronauts and cosmonauts counting down to their mission to the completed international space station.
The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station has many fascinating new insights, and much about family (both the work and home versions), though images of the Earth hanging like a frosted blue Christmas bauble in space, which you would think we might be blasé about now, still stun.
And not just for us armchair astronauts: as the film weaves the bigger picture of science, international co-operation, triumph and tragedy with personal stories of starry-eyed children, what comes across most is the feeling of wonder and privilege which these highly-trained scientists and pilots never lose.
“There’s billions of people on the planet and there’s only only six right now that are not confined to the surface,” says European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti near the end of the film, one of those statements which is both startling and, when you think about it, obvious.
Only 230 or so people have been to the ISS, from 19 countries. They are an elite band, and we meet several during this documentary — from America, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and more — relating their childhood dreams and adult experiences.
The space station is a remarkable feat of engineering and cooperation, built as it whizzed round the Earth at nearly 18,000 miles an hour, from pieces made across the globe that amazingly all fitted together. The project was announced by President Reagan in the 1980s, though JFK had been pushing for international co-operation decades earlier: suggesting the USSR be included in a joint mission to the Moon.
The film (directed by Clare Lewins) feels very self-contained, almost insular; we hear about the wider world but we join the astronauts and cosmonauts in their bubble. One American points out that training and working so closely with cosmonauts, it’s hard to believe relations between the two countries are often strained.
There are some anecdotes about the differences between the American and Russian ways of space travel from blessings from an Orthodox priest to their willingness to launch during weather that would ground them in the US. Mike Kelly was unnerved by a cosmonaut’s choice of song at lift-off when Killing Me Softly came on — while, he says, they are sitting on “a bomb of liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene designed to explode underneath you.”
When it all goes wrong though, the literal perspective they gain from being up in space also leaves them cut off. “We’re not having a very good day down here on Earth,” ground control tells the ISS astronauts on September 11, 2001. When the space shuttle Columbia is lost in 2003, left behind on the ISS are the astronauts from Expedition 6, unsure about their own return.
Lewins moves from sadness to humour with confidence, helped by those of her subjects who really know how to tell a good tale. Without any bias at all I can say that out in front is Mike Foale, the British-American astronaut who was sent in a military helicopter to pick up Expedition 6 when they finally landed back on Earth, hundreds of miles off-course. Foale is a terrific storyteller: funny, urbane, explaining the science easily as he goes along.
With two Brits flying the flag in space and this film, they both manage to make their mark. Tim Peake phoning his mum and dad in Sussex from the ISS and getting an answerphone message saying they are out is peak (sorry) British parenting.
Families left behind are central: at the launches, watching a parent blast off; chatting across space about their day at school (I was pleased to hear a monosyllabic response from one teen; it doesn’t matter if your parent is literally in space). Astronaut Cady Coleman’s story is partly told through her artist husband Josh and son Jamey. “It’s amazing to think that someone that you love is that pinpoint of light,” says Josh, of watching her launch disappear up into the heavens. (You can read my interview with Cady Coleman here.)
I’ve now seen this twice; initially I kept pausing to google facts and people (it’s that kind of documentary) and it deserved another, unbroken watch. At just over two hours it feels on the long side, and at times meanders thought people’s family lives. It also feels like PR, though there is more than enough detail, information and visuals to keep us both intrigued and entertained.
The reconstructions of the astronauts and cosmonauts as children, looking at the stars from the American Midwest, or Russia in a fur hat, may feel a little trite — too whimsical for a film about a project founded not in the heavens but incredibly detailed science and engineering. Though cosmonaut Sergai Krikalev brings us back to Earth with a welcome bump in the face of some of the quote-ready Americans with his admission that: “I liked machinery. Big complicated machinery.”
Still, the paths many of the astronauts took into space will be cheering to anyone with a child who is a dreamer who thinks on a different plane, rather than the straight-A student at the front of the class with their hand permanently in the air. The astronauts and cosmonauts’ sense of wonder and achievement when they finally make it to the ISS is often as much about wanting to reassure their 10-year-old selves: look kid, you made it.
The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station is available on digital, blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Watch the trailer now: