Anti-Gravity Cinema - Filming Science Fiction in Outer Space Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Anti-Gravity Cinema - Filming Science Fiction in Outer Space

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Artwork showing various cinematic emblems floating in space.

Unlike other great 'firsts' – such as Columbus' 'discovery' of America   – space exploration has always been a media event. Columbus didn't even think to bring a sketch artist with him, a serious omission. In 1957, the world knew at once when the Soviet Union's space pioneers had succeeded in getting the first satellite into Earth orbit: everybody could hear Sputnik on the radio. The space age and the broadcast age went hand-in-hand.

Some people are excited by science. They think Bunsen burners are sexy. Others, not so much, but everybody loves a good science fiction yarn. Visual references to the space age will spice up your next music video or public-art mural. It will make even the most mundane urban artefact seem modern and 'relevant'.

Science fiction, though, is hard to film. It is sort of obvious that the reason classic Star Trek featured 'artificial gravity' was that it's awfully hard to turn off the gravity in Los Angeles. The transporters might give Scotty fits, but as a plot device, it's a lot cheaper to maintain than a shuttle bay full of high-cost and hard-to-film models. The problem with science fiction is that it takes place in a world where things are technically possible that... well, aren't. At least, not here and now. Surely more than one science fiction filmmaker has thought to himself: 'ere now, wouldn't it be great if I could film Eccentrica Gallumbits Does the Moon on location?'

Pioneering efforts to put more realism into science fiction by using location shooting were pretty expensive. Apollo 13 took its actors to dizzying heights by forcing them to film aboard the KC-135, aka 'the Vomit Comet'. The problem was, you only got 23 seconds of zero-g at a throw. Kevin Bacon and his fellow actor-nauts had to make more than 500 parabolic arcs to get enough footage. Now, that's suffering for your art1.

As the 21st Century dawns, so does a new era in filmmaking: science fiction on location. Since the turn of the millennium, spacefaring artists have filmed documentaries, music videos, and even – finally! – an honest-to-gosh Grade-B scary sci-fi movie, all aboard the International Space Station. Best of all, thanks to the world's space agencies, all of these glorious pieces of entertainment can be enjoyed for free on the Internet.

The ISS: surely the planet's most expensive movie set.

What Yuri Saw

As the world knows, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first human in space. On 12 April, 1961, he boarded Vostok 1, a Soviet-made rocket, and blasted off where nobody but fruit flies, monkeys, frogs, and a stray cat had gone before. For a little over 89 minutes, Yuri circled the globe at a distance of up to 200 miles, all the while radioing back, 'I can see Earth! It's beautiful! Being weightless is quite pleasant.'

We were delighted, of course, but wasn't it a shame the whole thing wasn't on live TV? Well, okay, the peasant woman who met Gagarin when he landed in her potato field probably didn't own a television. We lacked the satellite hook-ups to make this event truly global. But wouldn't it have been nice to experience vicariously what that first brave cosmonaut saw as he floated over the Blue Marble, surely the loneliest man in the universe at that moment?

Some other people thought so, too. Which is why you can click your mouse now and watch First Orbit, the simulated 'live' flight of Yuri Gagarin. Warning: the film's in 'real time'. It takes 108 minutes to watch. You're 'living it', as they say. Go and watch it. We'll wait.

Are you back? You're suitably impressed, of course, but you have questions: How accurate is this film? Above all, how did they do that? British filmmaker Christopher Riley wanted to recreate the view that Gagarin saw during that historic Vostok 1 flight. He enlisted the help of the European Space Agency and the crew aboard the ISS. The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, but doesn't always follow the same path. As it turned out, every couple of weeks, the ISS follows the path of that first flight, and every six weeks, it does it more or less at the same time of day as when Gagarin first made the same journey. Astronaut Paolo Nespoli filmed the vista through the ISS's cupola. Music by composer Philip Sheppard was added. The result? Well, you saw it. It's stunning.

First Orbit is part documentary, part re-enactment, and part retro science fiction. It is also a way to educate ourselves about the history of spaceflight, and to share in the wonder of it all. On opening day, 3.3 million people visited YouTube to watch First Orbit, while others attended showings at 1,600 venues in 130 countries.

Is Somebody Singing?

The ISS has had no greater star aboard than Chris Hadfield. As a point of interest, Commander Hadfield was a toddler when Gagarin circled the Earth. In 2012, it was Hadfield's turn: he made history by becoming the first Canadian to walk in space. Non-Canadians, however, will always remember him as the man who sang that David Bowie song.

A gifted musician – we'll prove that in a minute – Hadfield performed several musical firsts aboard the ISS:

  • The first song recorded in space: Jewel in the Night, released Christmas Eve, 2012.
  • First song recorded simultaneously in space and on Earth: Is Somebody Singing? Hadfield wrote this song together with Ed Robertson of the group Barenaked Ladies.
  • First-ever David Bowie cover video filmed in space: May 2013's Space Oddity, Hadfield's farewell to the ISS. Notice how Hadfield gets the moves on the line 'and I'm floating in the most peculiar way'? That would have been hard for Bowie to do on a stage.

Chris Hadfield put the ISS on the musical map, so to speak, and made film history. At the same time, he delighted millions and won new converts to the exploration of the Final Frontier.

Oh, and he got to talk to Captain Kirk, too. A first for NASA TV.

Apogee of Fear

And now, the first science fiction film made in space! Made by a tourist. A tourist? Isn't that taking the Hitchhiker theme a little too far? You shall hear.

Richard Allen Garriott was born on the 4th of July (really!), 19612. So Gagarin got into space before he arrived. Garriott has made up for this, however, by becoming the sixth 'space tourist' – someone who pays his/her own way to make a spaceflight. Travelling aboard the ISS is a working holiday, and Garriott did his job. At the same time, however, he carried out his secret agenda: to inveigle the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS into participating in his B-movie, Apogee of Fear.

He did, they did, and NASA relented and let them show the film. The result? As more than one commentator has put it, 'The astronauts shouldn't quit their day jobs.' Watch the thrilling result of all this spare-time acting, and see what you think. It won't take as long as First Orbit, we promise. You won't even have time to down a whole bag of popcorn unless you're a really fast eater.

Is this film any good? Frankly, by comparison, Plan 9 from Outer Space is a cinematic masterpiece. As spaceanswers.com says, it's '[t]he worst (and first) sci-fi film that will ever be shot in space'.

Documentaries, music videos, science fiction: what's next for the space program? Perhaps a reality show based on The Jetsons? Whatever we see them do on NASA TV, now or in the future, we'll be grateful that they've kept in touch. And we'll be peeking over their shoulders, because the view from their windows makes us go green with envy.

1The outtake reel is probably not pretty.2Mr Garriott was not born on a holiday. At least, it wasn't a holiday in Cambridge, England. His parents were from the US, however, so they were probably aware of the significance of the date, even if the doctors weren't.

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