The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station
The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station
Director: Clare Lewins
Runtime: 126 minutes
Cast: George Abbey, Ken Bowersox, Cady Coleman, Samantha Cristoforetti, Frank L. Culbertson Jr., Ken Bowersox, Michael Foale, Scott Kelly, Sergei Krikalov, Sergey Volkov, Tim Peake
Synopsis: Over twenty years ago, rival nations put aside political and cultural differences and came together in a demonstration of international co-operation to create something unique—the International Space Station. For the first time in history, driven by his innate impulse to explore, man had a permanently inhabited foothold in the heavens. The Wonderful draws together personal stories from men and women from around the world who have been a part of this extraordinary endeavour, providing a fascinating insight into human nature and our relationship with planet Earth. These testimonials bring an intimacy and uniqueness to the story—bringing life in space alive, yet showing the strong emotional ties that bind these astronauts to the earth—and we are left not only with a sense of the vast ‘velvet bottomless bucket’ of the universe, but also the remarkable resilience and potential of mankind.
With SpaceX launching the world’s first ‘amateur astronaut’ crew to orbit Earth for three days recently, this comprehensive documentary from director Clare Lewins [I Am Ali (2014), Kareem: Minority of One (2015) and Perspectives (2011)] seems particularly timely.
The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station are personal testimonies from the men and women who have been part of the International Space Station — a remarkable achievement of technology, worldwide collaboration, scientific endeavour and human bravery.
Over twenty years ago, five space agencies representing fifteen countries came together to build one of the most ambitious engineering projects the world had ever seen. It took more than thirty missions, with parts manufactured thousands of kilometres apart and assembled by spacewalkers orbiting at 28,000 kilometres per hour, before the International Space Station (ISS) was completed in November 2000.
But The Wonderful – a documentary celebrating the ISS – isn’t an engineering story. It is the story of the people who have made the space station their home in the decades since it was first occupied, and the story of their loved ones back on Earth. Since it was first occupied, there has never been a day when there wasn’t someone living on the ISS.
From the crew who assembled the space station to its most recent inhabitants, this fascinating documentary explores the lives of those who have been involved in the ISS since the beginning. Punctuated with music and recordings of Earth from space, the night sky or training facilities, the film tells the story of the ISS through those who have been most involved with it.
Many of those interviewed dreamed of going into space since childhood, when looking at the night sky sparked their imagination, but it wasn’t always plain sailing. When Ginger Kerrick’s dreams of becoming an astronaut were dashed after NASA discovered she had kidney stones, she instead trained astronauts to prepare for their missions and supported the first crew to fly on the space station – she was there with them until take-off. Astronaut Peggy Whitson spent ten years applying to become an astronaut until she was finally selected. She went on to spend 665 days in space in her career – more than any other NASA astronaut.
Some didn’t share this childhood dream. Sergey Volkov describes how growing up with his father, the cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov, made him think that going into space was “heroic and difficult”. Many years later, Aleksandr was surprised to learn of his son joining the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, through reading the case files of those selected for the physical assessment.
Pictures and videos can help us understand what it is like to be in space, but nothing quite encapsulates the full experience, like hearing it first-hand. In The Wonderful, it is the added details that bring things on the ISS to life. Scott Kelly remarks on the vibrant colours he could see, when his vision wasn’t altered by the air. Tim Peake describes the sensation of silence slowly creeping up on him when he made his way into the vacuum of space for his spacewalk, and Samantha Cristoforetti describes seeing the space station up close for the first time.
Behind every astronaut living 400 kilometres above Earth’s surface, there are people on the ground missing them. The film gives us a glimpse of what it is like when your loved ones are floating above your head. NASA astronaut Cady Coleman’s husband, Josh Simpson, describes hearing from his wife every night, before going outside with their son Jamey to look up and see the ISS whizzing by overhead.
While everyone’s experience of space is different, something that seems to bring those who have been there together is a realisation of how fragile the planet is. A few people in the film mention their surprise at the size of the atmosphere compared with the planet, which Kelly describes as like a contact lens on someone’s eye.
Unavoidable subjects – like 9/11, with its news footage of New Yorkers in peril twenty years ago – are upsetting, as are shots of the space shuttle Columbia 2003 disaster, with surprising revelations.
While climate change isn’t explicitly mentioned, it is difficult not to make a comparison between the feats of science and engineering being celebrated in The Wonderful and the challenge facing Earth today. But the story of success that is the space station leaves the viewer with hope that, when working together, humans can do great things.
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Images courtesy of: Universal Pictures