TV refugee finds oasis of hope on One Strange Rock, NASA TV

Television: One Strange Rock and NASA TV

Evidence of intelligent life on Earth can be tough to find on the daily trek across the grid, but there’s an alternate universe hidden between the perpetual fireplace and Marie Kondo videos where humility and the human endeavour intersect — with inspirational results.

NASA TV

Available online and most cable grids

One Strange Rock

Produced by: Darren Aronofsky, National Geographic

Starring: Will Smith, Chris Hadfield, Mae Jemison, Jeff Hoffman, Jerry Linenger, Nicole Stott, Leland Melvin, Mike Massimino, Peggy Whitson

Now streaming on Netflix

By Katherine Monk

Planet Earth can feel like a pretty shitty place these days. For one reason, and one reason only: People. As the dominant species on the planet, we’ve gorged at the smorgasbord of resources at our feet, and turned Eden into a noxious frat party for the privileged. Coupled with systemic corruption, and leaders who mislead, it can all be too much for a private citizen to swallow in a single dose of cable news.

Honestly, who among us hasn’t suffered a spasm of misanthropy just by keeping up with current affairs? I know I have. Between bouts of talking heads regurgitating the daily bones, commercials for cancer drugs and cars, I keep looking for substance. And between rhetorical mortars launched behind party lines and the President’s patronizing purr that always sounds like a hotelier’s spiel, or a failing fifth-grader’s ad-lib in civics, I endeavour to dodge the bullets of bullshit that have turned the Capitol Dome into a whirling toilet of self-aggrandizing turds.

That said, I change the channel a lot. And even with my 1000+ station grid, I find there isn’t much to watch now that football and baseball are done, and hockey is meted out like Fagin’s broth. Moreover, there are only so many times one can watch the same episodes of Seinfeld before your brain cells die one prompted laugh at a time. And as much as I love PBS and other knowledge-oriented channels, it seems half the programming features dim lighting and a detective with an English accent.

I change the channel a lot. And even with my 1000+ station grid, I find there isn’t much to watch now that football and baseball are done, and hockey is meted out like Fagin’s broth.

So, in a moment of bored desperation, I went beyond my normal scanning zone and found an oasis of human inspiration hidden between the perpetual fireplace and weather updates: NASA TV.

Though it mostly shows images of Earth viewed from the International Space Station, with intermittent pop-up facts (such as the ISS is about the same size as an American football field at 356 feet long), prolonged viewing doesn’t just change your perspective on the planet, it eventually changes your feelings about people.

Indeed, the NASA channel has actually moved me in ways no other programming has because everything on NASA TV is a manifestation of humanity at its very best, even when things go wrong. Perhaps, then most of all.

Last October, in the midst of unfolding revelations in the Russia Probe and guilty convictions for several Trumpsters, it felt like the icy creep of the Cold War was recrystallizing under the surface. Putin was ten moves ahead in the global-political chess game, and trust between the American Republic and Russia felt as reliable as a Sochi urine test.

NASA TV has actually moved me in ways no other programming has because everything on the channel is a manifestation of humanity at its very best, even when things go wrong. Perhaps, then most of all.

Meanwhile, two men were strapped to a Soyuz rocket that failed to make orbit, and plummeted back to earth. American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin fell for twelve minutes, calmly running through the long list of procedures required to save their lives.

In an interview with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine conducted for NASA TV six days later, Hague described the entire denouement.

His delivery is so measured, so professional and so earnest, it forms an immediate, stark contrast with the omnipresent, hyperbolic stumpers and screamers that now populate the airwaves like so many jaw-flapping Muppets. He’s a real man, who underwent a very real near-death experience. Yet, standing there in his flight suit before a mission flag, explaining in detail the seamless cooperation between the crew mates, he affirmed my belief in people.

“When we skidded to a stop and I looked out the window, and it was about twelve inches from dirt, it was a huge sigh of relief and, oooh: We made it,” says Hague, matter-of-factly, but with a Mona Lisa smile. “We were grins ear to ear. Looking at each other, giving each other a high five, and cracking a few jokes about it being a short flight… but it was just this sense of relief: Being able to look each other eye to eye and knowing, wow, we just survived that.”

When he goes on to describe how the Russian search and rescue jumpers reached them within minutes, and how well they did their jobs, there’s the smallest of cracks in his voice — and it made my tear ducts swell.

Oh. Humans. We can be so noble and brave, so selfless and smart, so creative and curious. Just look at these people from NASA with their big brains, love of science and learning, and apparent disregard for cosmetics. It’s like taking a nice hot shower in truth.

Oh. Humans. We can be so noble and brave, so selfless and smart, so creative and curious. Just look at these people from NASA with their big brains, love of science and learning, and apparent disregard for cosmetics. It’s like taking a nice hot shower in truth.

Whether it’s the briefings from the ISS, where the astronauts speak live to media or school kids; the retro segments, where they cue up some old B-roll from the Apollo program; unveiling the first hi-res pictures of the mysterious Ultima Thule, or even a surreal shot of a space capsule being towed into the belly of a ship at dusk, you encounter images you don’t see anywhere else. Not just because they’re peering into the far-reaches of space, but because they have no agenda. Their only purpose is to help us understand ourselves, and our universe, a little bit better. And go figure, they’re all breathtakingly stunning.

Change the channel back to the “reality” below, where the business of people scars the landscape and the blather of humanity feels more contrived and specious than a double-reverse comb-over, and you might suffer some psychic whiplash.

WELCOME TO ONE STRANGE ROCK

So imagine how good my kundalini felt when I discovered One Strange Rock was now on Netflix. This National Geographic series produced by Darren Aronofsky and narrated by Will Smith originally aired on the NatGeo network last year. You probably didn’t hear too much about it then — most of the junket coverage was nerd-oriented (for folks like me) — but after a few weeks in release, it’s now trending on the heavyweight streaming service.

Though it appeals to the very same thirst for untainted scientific truth, stunning images and first-hand, expert accounts of space flight, One Strange Rock is a decidedly different kind of geek show thanks to Darren Aronofsky. The director behind Black Swan and Mother! — not to mention the mystical sci-fi fantasies The Fountain and Pi — doesn’t call the shots on these first ten episodes, but his imprimatur is undeniable.

Though it appeals to the very same thirst for untainted scientific truth, stunning images and first-hand, expert accounts of space flight, One Strange Rock is a decidedly different kind of geek show.

There’s a throbbing, alien tone on the soundtrack that suggests someone dragging heavy furniture in slow-motion, and the interviews with the eight astronauts who offer their heavenly testimony are shot close-up in high-contrast black and white, making their heads look like floating orbs in black space. The octet mirrors the number of planetary characters in our solar system, and each one brings a certain spin and presence to the larger series, offering particular insights into each show, from “Gasp,” the first episode that explores air and how our atmosphere developed, to “Awakening,” which traces the journey to human consciousness.

Every one of them is articulate, and frequently poetic, about their days aboard the ISS, gazing down at our homeworld. They all chorus the idea that we all share a common spaceship called Earth, and every single cell on the planet has a purpose. Yet, it’s only when all these mechanisms and processes are connected and balanced that great things can happen.

The directors go to great lengths to offer us compelling visuals that illustrate these meta-themes in ways the non-science-minded viewers will understand without too much lecturing from our Everyman narrator in Will Smith. So, for instance, to show us the importance of connection and balance, we watch the people of Catalonia, Spain come together to build human towers ten storeys high.

Catalonia One Strange Rock human tower

Climbing in Concert: Humans in Catalonia, Spain form teams to create human towers ten storeys high.

We can easily see it takes strength, coordination, and some crazy human courage to link arms and ankles to defy gravity, as well as every member of the group: The top tiers are formed by small children held aloft by fallible human flesh. We see them quiver. We watch them plummet in slo-mo, a flock of unwaxed Icaruses meeting cobblestone hubris.

There’s drama in every frame. Plus, we get the point. And no matter how large, or how small the lesson may be, everything in One Strange Rock tends toward Epic — in a distinct, Aronofsky fashion.

Extreme close-ups of camel eyeballs, mudfish fins, and glowworms sucking out the insides of trapped insects feel entirely familiar to anyone who’s watched Pi, The Fountain or Mother! Aronofsky is a specialist at creating a sense of dislocation in the viewer’s mind. He transforms familiar elements into psychological and physical threats.

In a show about our planet, this talent is a huge asset. After all, it’s not like any of the information here is revelatory. One Strange Rock tells the story of our solar system and our place in it, emphasizing just how extraordinary — perhaps, miraculous — our little planet truly is, sitting in the “Goldilocks Zone” with an ample supply of liquid water and a resulting atmosphere, a living blue rock in the backwoods of the universe.

Extreme close-ups of camel eyeballs, mudfish fins, and glowworms sucking out the insides of trapped insects feel entirely familiar to anyone who’s watched Pi, The Fountain or Mother! Aronofsky is a specialist at creating a sense of dislocation in the viewer’s mind. He transforms familiar elements into psychological and physical threats.

We’ve heard everyone from Carl Sagan and David Attenborough, to David Suzuki and Al Gore, explore the same truths. Yet, One Strange Rock feels different from previous science and nature shows about the earth’s origins and the current threat of climate Armageddon. Part of this is due to the producer’s vision, but the rest is the result of the eight astronauts. Because we’re seeing the Earth exclusively through their eyes — and not those of the earthbound — their quiet sense of awe and humility defines the whole piece.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is perhaps the most performance-oriented of the bunch, which is no surprise from the scientist who packed his six-string onto the ISS and famously sang Space Oddity in zero G. Among this eight-astronaut sample, he also spent the the second-most days in orbit, giving his observations more detail and narrative depth. Plus, he’s a natural and passionate talker, which provides a nice tonal shift from some of the others, who lack the fancy descriptives, but still articulate the same spiritual voyage.

One Strange Rock

One Strange Rock: Filmmakers explore deep craters via free divers to study Earth’s earliest atmosphere.

When astrophysicist and astronaut Jeff Hoffman talks about the feeling of stepping into space for the first time, he describes his “Eureka moment”: “I saw more of the true character of the sun than people who are always on the surface of the Earth. You open the airlock… and it’s like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz… I was seeing the sun in a black sky. Think about that: To really see the sun as a star.”

Hoffman’s mind was forever altered by his time off-planet. The same for Peggy Whitson, who racked up the most days in space of any astronaut at 665 days 22 hours and 22 minutes. Whitson tears up when she talks about her time above us, and how she longs to go back. She says it changed her sense of what it means to be human — just as every one of the astronauts featured in this series — and all NASA programming — avow. They all learn just how small and vulnerable we are, but also how deeply we’re connected to each other, and to the Earth. “Our rock is special, we care about it because it’s where we evolved,” says Mae Jemison. It is us.

Getting to know the planet is to better know yourself. Getting to know our place in the solar system is to better know the humbling truth of humanity.

Amid the current flood of ego and hate threatening to consume hallowed institutions, it’s easy to lose hold on hope and faith in our better selves. That’s why I’m so grateful to the souls who continue NASA’s pure pursuit of knowledge and commit to the institution’s mission every single day. They remind me such institutions are necessary if we want to transcend the bounds of ego and achieve something greater than ourselves. I share the same gratitude for One Strange Rock. Not only does it provide the TV-weary with a soft place to land with the remote. It makes the very act of being alive seem freakishly unlikely and bubbling with potential. Indeed, it makes you believe the impossible: People are awesome.

@katherinemonk

 

THE EX-PRESS, February 28, 2019

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