A new two-hour documentary has an exclusive edge on the astronaut's view of space exploration, between a set of extensive international interviews and several minutes of rare footage from inside spacecraft.
"The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station" opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 10 and is available on select streaming services beginning today (Sept. 17). If you prefer a digital download, that will also be available Sept. 17, a press release stated. More details are available on the film's official website (opens in new tab).
"The Wonderful" is directed by Clare Lewins ("I Am Ali", "Kareem: Minority of One", "The Lost Tapes of Memphis") and produced by BAFTA and Emmy-nominee George Chignell ("Citizen K", "Searching for Sugar Man", "I Am Ali") with Dog Star Films in association with Fisheye Films. You can see an exclusive clip (opens in new tab)above with former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the first woman every to command the space station, from the film.
A description from the film promises testimonials from the men and women who were involved in the International Space Station (ISS) from the beginning, with a heavy emphasis on those people who have visited the station and stayed there for long periods of time. You also will see space footage rarely shown on NASA TV or in documentaries, such as training facilities, the interiors of a Soyuz spacecraft during missions, or personal conversations between family members from ground to space.
The filmmakers include and narrate in detail notable ISS missions such as Expedition 1 (the first to spend a few months on the station), Expedition 3 (which happened during the 9/11 terrorist attacks that took place 20 years ago this weekend) and Expedition 6 (which had to switch return vehicles from a space shuttle to a Russian Soyuz after the fatal Columbia disaster of Feb. 1, 2003.)
For example: NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who famously wrote blog posts from space in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, recalls on camera "racing around the station" trying to find a video camera to zoom in on the New England coast, the site of the attacks. He spotted smoke coming from downtown Manhattan and noticed it intensifying before his eyes.
"It turned out later what I was seeing was the second tower collapse," he said, referring to the two towers of the World Trade Center that had each been deliberately impacted by planes. The next day, Culbertson added, he learned that long-time Navy friend Capt. Charles Burlingame III died; Burlingame was the pilot of the plane that another group of terrorists ultimately redirected deliberately into the Pentagon. We next see Culbertson playing the "taps" bugle call from orbit on his own trumpet (opens in new tab), which he found room to bring to space with him.
It is in these personal reminisces that the documentary shines, especially because the filmmakers are careful to include a range of genders and international voices among the space travelers. You really feel like you know the personalities of the individuals through their lengthy interviews, which usually begin with a childhood story about how they were inspired by space, followed by an account of what it felt like to launch on one of their spacecraft, and then memorable moments from their mission.
For example, the Koichi Wakata interview — an astronaut from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — is full of boundless joy. Dramatic shots of Wakata in space in the Japanese Kibo module show him gleefully cartwheeling and somersaulting in microgravity, demonstrating the energy that he is known to bring to space. Delightfully, the documentary takes a few moments to show Wakata chatting with the Kirobo space robot and doing calligraphy while he was in orbit, too.
There is a caveat, however; the documentary is not a thorough look at the International Space Station program, nor the key moments that led up to it; space historians will see large gaps in the narration. The documentary makers make a nod at the timeline by bringing former NASA Johnson Space Center director George Abbey on board, nicknamed "the astronaut maker" in a 2018 Michael Cassutt book of the same name for his behind-the-scenes role in shepherding crews to flight.
Abbey correctly points out that U.S. President John F. Kennedy suggested Soviet collaboration for future moon landings in 1963, just a few months before Kennedy's assassination — an event that interrupted the effort. But the documentary does not give a thorough look at Soviet-U.S. or even Russian-U.S. relations in the years afterward, ignoring key ISS development moments such as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975, the ultimately canceled Freedom Space Station program of the 1980s (which deliberately excluded Russia during difficult moments of the Cold War), and the Shuttle-Mir program of the 1990s that took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another frustrating aspect of the documentary — which frequently talks about peaceful international relations between the partners and how the ISS program promotes that — was neglecting those moments when the partners have sparred, such as following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. It also ignores the years-long, multi-presidential-administration development of NASA's commercial crew — a key space station program that had its own lengthy and troubled work to contend with. Commercial crew had international implications as NASA relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for nearly a decade to send crews into space, and paid Roscosmos by the seat for the opportunity. Development is also not complete yet given years of trouble with Boeing's Starliner program.
That said, the astronauts give some wonderful anecdotes in their interviews. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson laments that she cannot go to space anymore, because she maxed out her lifetime agency radiation allotment — something she had complained about before retirement, as the allotments are lower for women than for men. But there might still be hope given the rise of space tourism and private space missions this summer; "I'll have to find somebody else that will fly me," Whitson says with a smile.
We also get to know the family of NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, whose husband Josh Simpson is a glassblower; you see some of his creations flying in space with her. Her son, Jamey, watched her launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and recalled his bemused reaction while seeing the rocket lift off with a family member on board: "Wow, my mom is not on the planet anymore."
Speaking of Baikonur, the documentary shows incredible footage of the famous launch rollouts that take place at the former Soviet launch complex, now regularly used for International Space Station missions. Eerie shots of the Soyuz rocket rolling along its railway and rising in the fog accompany the narration, along with some explanation about how the Soyuz works. In fact, hearing the astronauts carefully describe, for example, the differences between the shuttle landing and the Soyuz landing gives the documentary a bit more depth than the usual questions of how an astronaut "feels" during launch or landing.
Other featured astronauts or cosmonauts include Samantha Cristoforetti (European Space Agency or ESA), Frank Culbertson (NASA), Mike Foale (NASA), Scott Kelly (NASA), Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos), Tim Peake (ESA), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergey Volkov (Roscosmos).
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.