Orbital

I watched The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station. This gives the human interest stories around the International Space Station.

We start with the back story of the Space Race, and President Kennedy’s offer for US/Soviet collaboration on a mission to the Moon. It is implied this was a serious initiative that vanished after its sponsor was assassinated, but we aren’t given much to suggest JFK intended or expected anything fruitful from the idea or would have been able to impose it on a sceptical Washington bureaucracy. Oddly, there is no mention of the actual Apollo/Soyuz link-up that occurred ten years later. We also don’t hear about the longer history of space stations, the old Skylab and Salyut missions, and the even grander proposals from the 1950s. There is only a brief mention of the Mir station of the mid 80s, though at the time it was noted that it had the capacity (never used) to dock with the US Space Shuttle. There is no mention about any scepticism about whether the ISS was worth its cost, as a scientific research station – but it was voiced back in the 80s and 90s.

The space programme is represented through its influence on the young minds that grew up to be ISS astronauts. For many of these, it was the 1969 Moon landings, and we see dramatised sequences mixed with archive footage of young people from that time, and also family photos and interviews. Most impressive is the Russian cosmonaut whose father was a Cosmonaut before him, and so as a boy he was already familiar with Star City. There are clips of it in its Leninist heyday:

Nowadays it is apparently the norm for an Orthodox priest to bless any crew about to aboard a launch – when was that introduced? Is it a Putin Era innovation? We don’t find out.

This is a compilation of interviews with astronauts who did tours of duty at the station, more or less in chronological sequence over its history. We hear from the American commander who was in charge on the day that the WTC was attacked in New York, and he could only get incomplete reports from Mission Control. Due to the grounding of flights across the US he was able to observe the country through clearer skies and see the plume of smoke across Manhattan. Later, NASA had to go off-line and move to a secret secure location (he still doesn’t know where that was) and Moscow centre took over contact.

The other disaster to occur during the station’s history was the break-up of the Shuttle Columbia on its way back to Earth. We see footage of the Control staff becoming concerned and finally distressed as they realised what had happened.

There is not much about the experimental work done at the station, other than the projects to investigate the effects of long-term habitation in low-gravity, which was a topic for Skylab crew back in the 70s. The Japanese astronaut during his period was testing a new AI robot dog intended to be a companion for crew during longer missions out in to the solar system.

Many of the astronauts take it as straightforward and obvious that manned space travel must continue and aim at the goals of a permanent settlement on the Moon and then Mars. This seems to be a firm point for the Russians. One American mentioned a vague intimation when he was a child of his fate to spend time in a confined place, but he wasn’t keen on “weird stuff”.

It’s not clear whether both the Americans and Russians were bilingual in their joint missions, although all non-Americans seem to be fluent in English. Note that the name badges, at least for the first mission, were in both Latin and Cyrillic:

We hear about the family lives of the astronauts, including a female flyer whose husband stays at home to look after the kids whilst she has the exciting career. We also hear from a nearly-made-it applicant who ended up in Mission Control, failed on medical grounds after assessment. It is remarked that relatives can mix more easily and get closer to the launch site at Baikonur in Kazahstan than is possible at US launch sites.

There are clips of the strenuous training programmes the flyers have to go through. Have a Navy background seems to have helped form the right mindset for some of them, and we see that floating in space at the edge of a great gulf is not so different from immersion in the great waves, offshore.

All the details faithfully copied in films like Gravity and Proxima are here in their original environment. This is the end of the heroic age of space travel. Gagarin and Armstrong were extraordinary and exceptional; these men and women are getting closer to the regular working stiffs of Alien. Next will be the Billionaire Boys Club Of Bezos and Musk, with space stations as orbiting yachts and self-contained tax havens.

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