by Rita Aresta
There’s no place like home – and we’re not talking about The Wizard of Oz.
Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (mother!, Black Swan) and award-winning producer Jane Root (the first female controller of a BBC television channel and responsible for commissioning the original British version of The Office) joined forces to bring us a landmark documentary series of epic proportions.
This 10-part series from Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures and Root’s Nutopia brings cameras where they’ve never been before, not only filming in 45 countries across six continents, but also from outer space on the International Space Station (ISS). One Strange Rock guides viewers through our vulnerable, tiny speck of a planet among the vast, harsh cosmic arena, revealing the magic twists of fate that have allowed life to emerge, survive and thrive on Earth.
Hosted by Will Smith (Men in Black, Ali), One Strange Rock promises to be a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth, one of the most peculiar, unique places in the entire Universe. It’s the extraordinary story of why life as we know it exists on Earth, brought into perspective by the only people to have left it behind – astronauts.
It features a cast of absolute space giants, from Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to command the ISS (and YouTube sensation following his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, the first-ever music video performed in space) to Mae Jemison, the first woman of colour to go to space.
VH had the privilege of talking to cast member, Captain and former astronaut Jerry Linenger, who spent nearly five months aboard the Russian Space Station Mir, where he faced numerous life-threatening events. This included the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft, repeated failure of critical life-support systems, a near-collision between the spacestation and an incoming re-supply spacecraft, and computer failures – so it’s no wonder his episode in One Strange Rock is titled “Survival”. In completing the treacherous mission, he completed 50 million miles, the equivalent distance of more than 110 round trips to the Moon. In 2008, NASA awarded Linenger the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award conferred by NASA, citing his courage and outstanding courage to country.
So, I was having a look at your biography and I was quite interested to find out that your background was in medicine. I was wondering how did it feel to make that leap from medicine to the huge Cosmos out there?
Yeah, I’d done regular patient care, things like that, and then I started getting into research in which I was looking at bone remodelling, which fit really well with one of the challenges that astronauts face. I came back with about a 14% bone loss, mostly lower spine. Part of my drive to do that long duration flight with the Russians at that time was my love of human physiology and my appreciation of how intricate our human body is, so that blended in very nicely. This film is epic, we’re talking about galactic events, billions of years, distances of trillions of miles, but you look at the human body and in a microscale you’ve got a trillion neurons, and trillions of synaptic connections. We ourselves are just as impressive as the Universe, so I think both of those things leave me in awe – life and how it’s been created, and the bigger galaxy isn’t that different really.
Especially since your episode was all about “Survival”, I guess that kind of thing really fits into it – being aboard spacecraft, facing life and death situations, even having to adapt to a whole new language. How was that for you?
I think survival fits me well, and you know my background so you know in the Mir space station we were having one day after another of life and death kind of problems – the fire, the collision, and everything else happening, life support systems failing. It’s quite a privilege to look at the cycles of death and the sacrifice, how it has moved us along and created us as human beings. When you reflect about it, we’ve got the brain power, the rational thought, we can try to understand things and try to make sense of everything. We use this brain power in this moment in time where life has evolved and we can understand actually how some of this stuff came about, from the di-atomic molecule of oxygen to the origin of the Universe. It’s spectacular. It makes me in awe.
Did you find that being part of this show brought some of these memories and feelings back to you?
Absolutely, and actually solidified a lot of things, made me reflect a bit more deeply than I had. I can think back to space and remember floating over one window for 90 minutes when orbiting the Earth and watching the Sun rise and the Sun set and Hale-Bop comet just shining like a flashlight and you sort of have this wondrous thing. The fire, for example, I remember it’s this 3-foot flame, sparks flying off the end of it, the point’s down and it’s going to pierce the hull, cause massive decompression, suffocation… You take that all in but my first thought was to literally yell out “We’re gonna put that fire out!”, I’m going to see my boy again, we’re going to do everything right.
And again that’s the species’ instinct kicking in at the same time, isn’t it?
You’re exactly right. And that’s what I never really caught out on. I knew that instinct kicked in, that was strong, to get the fire out – that’s the survival instinct. But the perpetuation of species instinct was just as strong, if not stronger. I’ve not watched my son yet, he’s only a year-and-a-half year old, I need to protect him still. That lightbulb never went on until I was doing this series when I had this appreciation, with my episode with particular, dealing with survival and all the different events that lead to my birth and my son’s birth, all the things that had to come together perfectly.
When you were floating by the window watching what we’d call the sunset and sunrise, how did it feel to see those familiar things and places from a completely different perspective? Sometimes, if I’m in an airplane and I’m landing in my home city, I can see the landmarks and think “That’s so cool!” – I can’t even imagine it on your scale!
No, you’re imagining it very well. Even an astronaut, you’d think you’d say – okay, planet Earth is my home, and I did have that transition or transformation take place. I now consider planet Earth my home, on a bigger scale. But it’s funny – the Russians spoke no English, I was cut off and isolated for five months basically, broken down communication system… But the one word the Russians knew was “Michigan”. I’m from Michigan, it kind of looks like a handprint with the lakes surrounding it. So, I’d be working somewhere and every now and then I’d hear one of the other cosmonauts yell “Jerry! Jerry! Michigan! Michigan!” and I would look out of the window, and it has such a distinct look on the planet, it’d be like someone saying “Oh there’s the English Channel!” if they looked at the UK. I would drop whatever I was doing, if at all possible, to go to the window and take a look at my home. In Russia the same thing would happen, I’d say “Hey look there’s Moscow!” and they’d scramble to the window. We have that instinct, and it’s a powerful one, when you think about our ability to relocate where we are – like if you’re in a hotel room with the lights out you can still find your way back from the bathroom. It’s like returning to the cave, if you will.
How was it to be “back at work”, as it were, in the show, with colleagues and others working in the same field – how did it feel?
It was awesome, just so much fun. We did a lot of things. We just had the premiere in New York. We did some media work where there’d be three reporters, but sometimes they couldn’t get a word in because we just kept talking! I think they enjoyed the daylights out of it, because we’re talking and it’s fun comparing war stories, if you will. So, when they say we’re doing something else with television critics in Los Angeles, we’re like “Yeah! We get to see each other again!”. We became pretty close. A couple of the people I was close with before, but here there were also people of different areas, that were astronauts at different times, we became great friends and swapping stories all the time. And it’s also their way of getting out some of these things because it’s very hard to convey a lot of these life-changing things that took place within each of us. That’s why I love this series. One Strange Rock gives you that sort of appreciation of the complexity of things and it leaves you in awe, and that’s the same thing that space did for me. It left me in awe.
There are a lot of TV shows about planet Earth – if you switch on the TV, there’ll be something on, somewhere. But it’ll be something about the forest, or the desert, or the ocean, but there isn’t that integration and human connection that One Strange Rock brings.
I concur. It’s that integration of the planet, and not just physical but also the cultures and the different elements being formed, you know, as basic as oxygen being formed. It’s kind of like a tapestry with all the different threads and you need all those threads to come together to make the big picture. It does a really nice job of covering from the micro-organism all the way up to the Universe, and then they cover different cultures and the different nuances of human existence, nuances of life, and so the tapestry that is woven is beautifully done and it ends up pretty much a masterpiece. It’s the closest thing I’ve had to giving me that same feeling I had when I was up there in space of what a fantastic place we live in.
How important do you think this show is helping to model the future, for kids and young adults, or someone who has a 2000-piece Lego model of the Apollo Saturn V in their living room…? I feel science is managing to reach out quite a bit more, it no longer feels like space is just “this weird thing out there”.
I was inspired with just a black and white TV, with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and I was 14 years old and I said “I’m gonna do that someday”, and I pretty much set my life on that course. Tried to finish all my schooling, trying to do well along the way, went into naval aviation because that’s where more astronauts had come from that any other walk of life. So I structured my life based on inspiration from an old black and white TV watching the moon landing and so I think we’re back on track with the Space Age if you will, for example we’ve got the private industry working here in the US – they weren’t doing it exactly right in the beginning, but that’s water under the bridge now, and we have some hopeful signs of what the future looks like again, and I think this series will inspire you to say “Wow, it’d be great to get off the planet”.
Do you think we’re on the second big space race now, to Mars? We’ve got Elon Musk, SpaceX and NASA, Putin wants to go to Mars as well…
Internationally, China are doing some fantastic stuff, and of course Russia are still in the game… I think it’s a different kind of race than it was back in the Cold War. I think we will, and to some degree my mission with the Russians kind of laid the groundwork with the later on international space stations, which was done pretty effectively. I think it’ll be a different race. I think one thing that’s still the same, I remember from John Kennedy’s speech “we choose to go to the moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard”, and I think we’re finally back to making choices and doing things that are hard. We’ll challenge ourselves and we’ll do great things, and I think that’s the key. So personally, I don’t care whether we go to the Moon and build a colony, or go to Mars and build a settlement there, it’s all absolutely fine as long as it’s hard. And this will bring out the best in mankind.
One Strange Rock premieres on National Geographic Channel on Tuesday 27th March at 8PM.