Millions of Americans stared in horror on Sept. 11, 2001, as their televisions flashed with images of two hijacked airplanes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers. Former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson watched from the International Space Station.
He recounts the despair he felt in orbit while looking down on Earth. The ISS’s cameras deftly located a seemingly peaceful, cloudless sky above North America and caught sight of the thick shrouds of smoke ascending from lower Manhattan. His distance from the planet made him conscious of his safety from the chaos, a safety that almost felt unfair to him. Later, Culbertson learned one of the American pilots on the attack’s painfully long list of victims was his friend.
Like the entire nation, Culbertson was abruptly reminded of what it means to feel human.
Culbertson’s story is just one of many intimate anecdotes told by international astronauts in the new documentary The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station. It’s already out in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will be available for digital download on Sept. 17 on YouTube and other services yet to be announced.
Director Clare Lewins, known for her 2014 documentary I Am Ali, about boxer Muhammad Ali, focuses her film on the quiet emotions and experiences that accompany space travel. She does this by drawing attention away from the cosmos and putting its explorers at the forefront.
The Wonderful isn’t really a movie about space; it’s a story about the people who upended their lives to go there.
The film is strung together with music ranging from Claire de Lune to rock ‘n’ roll, sometimes a bit of an odd choice, and cinematic sequences of cruising over Earth that are occasionally a bit longer than needed. However, the movie’s carried by minimalistic scenes of astronauts simply narrating their memories of journeying to and making the ISS their home.
Some are remarkable accounts of the grandeur of the station’s solar panels or the car-crash-like descent back to Earth. Others are charmingly banal recollections, such as listening to Coldplay in a space capsule.
Docking on the ISS elicited an “Oh my!” from European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforreti and Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, actually felt like one when she first saw her reflection during a spacewalk.
Scott Kelly viscerally describes the Earth’s atmosphere as a contact lens placed on the planet, and recalls his surprise when he finally was invited to interview at NASA. Like anyone vying for a new job, he worries about which suit to wear.
You can’t help but notice that many of the astronauts share unifying pasts of peering up at the sky, believing they’d one day float among the stars. Admittedly somewhat cliche, their wide-eyed childhood dreams reminded me of how lovely it is that humans have repeated the desire to shoot for the moon frequently enough for it to become a hallmark of our culture.
Interviews are also interspersed with touching details about what it’s like for families to suddenly be separated by the clouds.
In a powerful statement, former astronaut Cady Coleman’s husband, Josh Simpson, discusses how he felt when his wife’s rocket climbed into the night sky until it became a speck of light in the darkness. “It’s amazing to think that someone that you love is that pinpoint of light,” he says.
Astronauts themselves are asked how it feels to leave behind fathers, wives, brothers, children and friends — unsure if it would be their last goodbye — as the iconic 10…9…8 countdown is chanted during their rocket’s launch.
But the pain of leaving behind one family is soon alleviated by their entrance into another. Cristoforreti calls the experience of finally setting foot in the ISS a “new birth.”
Particularly, because the film’s testimonials represent global institutions including NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, the movie successfully underlines the ISS’s role in providing an apolitical oasis for adventurers of the world to embark on the same mission.
Despite any minor shortcomings, it’s nearly impossible to watch this movie and not feel inspired. It’s a grounded version of the classic, epic space documentary that illustrates how incredible things can be achieved by humans — who eat the same food as the rest of us, listen to the same music and love their families the same way.
Coleman’s son summarizes The Wonderful best when he chuckles and describes his reaction when his friends ask him what it’s like to have an astronaut mother: “Well, it’s just mom.”