"This is the story of Earth, from the only people who have ever left it."
That, in a tagline, is the premise of "One Strange Rock," a ten-part television documentary series premiering in March on National Geographic Channel. Presented by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky ("mother!", "Black Swan") and hosted by actor Will Smith, "One Strange Rock" reframes our view of the planet Earth from the perspective of eight of astronauts who spent time on board the International Space Station.
"I think this is the first time astronauts have narrated and shared their stories about how it felt and what it was like to be in space, but also how it applies back to the planet," said Leland Melvin, who helped build the space station on two shuttle missions and who is featured in "One Strange Rock." [2017's Must-Read Space Books]
"We haven't found another planet like this, with lifeforms that are building and creating these incredible systems and working together — and sometimes not working together," said Melvin. "It's really a strange and complicated rock that is able to do some pretty miraculous things."
Filmed in space and across 45 countries on six continents over the course of more than a year, "One Strange Rock" reaches beyond being a nature documentary by weaving in the astronauts' personal and emotional experiences to shape how the planet is shown.
"They are part of the planet that have left the planet and looked back," said Alice Jones, who directed the tenth and final episode of the series. "It is that perspective shift that takes [the series] from being about the world we know to being the strange rock."
"I think the astronauts are really what makes this series unique," Jones told collectSPACE.com. "What they bring is that emotional experience being there and seeing it with their eyes. They all say, 'We have seen photos of Earth and you kind of know what to expect, but when you go up there and look at it, it hits you here, [in the heart].'"
"It is the emotional, personal storytelling that is interwoven throughout the factual content that I think is what probably makes it unique," she said.
In addition to Melvin, "One Strange Rock" also features the experiences of astronauts Chris Hadfield, Jeffrey Hoffman, Mae Jemison, Nicole Stott, Jerry Linenger, Peggy Whitson and Michael Massimino.
"We have chosen scientists or science-minded astronauts, not just military pilots, but people who have a real insight into the inner workings of the world and universe, who also happen to fly in space on the side, to host our series," said Jones.
A ninth astronaut, Paolo Nespoli with the European Space Agency (ESA), also contributed to "One Strange Rock" but from behind the camera.
"We have got fantastic footage from the space station over the last few years," said Jones, "but we were also able to work with ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli. Darren Aronofsky spoke with him and we gave him training on a RED [HD] camera and in his spare time, Paolo filmed for us."
"We were super lucky that Paolo's [stay] overlapped with Peggy Whitson," said Jones. "So we've got beautifully shot footage of Peggy living aboard the space station."
As the series' host, Will Smith ("Ali," "Men in Black") gives voice to the everyman.
"Will Smith just fits perfectly, he is great," Jones said. "We wanted someone who was accessible and approachable, and had a warmth and charisma the audience could relate to. I think he'll be a great counterpoint with the astronauts."
"One Strange Rock," produced by Protozoa Pictures and Nutopia, is set for a two-hour premiere on March 26 in 172 countries and 43 languages. In addition to the program for television, National Geographic also worked with NASA to launch a virtual reality (VR) camera to the space station to support the production of a 3D, 360-degree short film that will debut alongside the series.
"When you are here on this strange rock, it is hard to look outside it," said Aronofsky, speaking Saturday (Jan. 13) at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, as reported by Nerdist. "What was interesting for me in this journey was that all of these amazing people [the astronauts], whether they went up in space for eight days or 600 days, they all had a very similar experience.”
Watch the new trailer for National Geographic's "One Strange Rock" at collectSPACE.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.