If you’ve ever seen or read The Right Stuff, you have a good sense of what prospective astronauts went through in the ’60s on their journey to the space program. Now, thanks to a new two-part virtual reality film announced today, we’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at what that journey is like in this century.
The 30-minute film, Space Explorers, is from the VR masters Felix & Paul Studios–with help from Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets–and was funded by Facebook-owned Oculus. The filmmakers worked with NASA, SpaceX, and the Russian space program in a bid to give us the best possible glimpse inside the extremely rarefied world of current and soon-to-be astronauts.
The hope is that the finished project will be shown at next year’s Sundance Film Festival. Today, Felix & Paul is showing only a three-minute trailer on Samsung’s Gear VR.
If the film is a success, said Felix & Paul cofounder and creative director Paul Raphael, the studio would aim for a second film that would be made on the International Space Station. That film, potentially, would be directed and shot by the astronauts themselves.
And, said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his opening keynote at Oculus Connect today, “Most of us will never get to experience zero gravity, or travel to space station, but you can in VR.”
But before all this was possible, Felix & Paul had to work their way inside the insular world of astronauts and rocketeers. “At first all the doors are closed,” said Raphael of the project’s early stages over a year ago. “Then they’re opening some pretty amazing doors.”
That process, he said, mirrors what the wanna-be astronauts themselves go through as they proceed from outsiders to being the people in the famous blue suits.
Space Explorers takes us to many of the places astronauts go during their training: from NASA’s Johnson Space Center and its incredible Neutral Buoyancy Lab to New Mexico’s White Sands, where Mars rovers prowl endless desert, and where women and men in spacesuits can practice the kinds of walks they’d do if they made their way to Mars itself.
During the first episode, viewers will get to spend time with a group of young astronauts, looking in at the early parts of the training program. It’s “how they get from being a regular person to being an astronaut going to space, and figuring out what [they’re] going to do,” Raphael said. “They don’t know if they’re going to be sent to the [Space Station] or to Mars or how they get there. It’s the mysteries that they live with throughout their whole careers.”
The film also shows us a bit of the passing of the torch from the current generation of astronauts to the next generation, the ones who could be going to Mars, said Felix & Paul’s chief content officer, Ryan Horrigan. And it’s meant to dispel some of the myths about NASA–in particular, that America’s space agency has been just hitching rides with Russians since the closure of the Space Shuttle program. On the contrary, NASA and private American space companies like SpaceX and Boeing are already developing the next generation of spacecraft and rockets, including the Orion program.
Still, the astronaut program is all about collaboration. That includes collaboration with the Russians, with SpaceX, and with Boeing, Raphael said.
The film project was born at Sundance in January 2016, when Horrigan was talking with filmmaker Spurlock, who suggested that it would be great to get a VR camera on the Space Station. Spurlock had the NASA contacts, and work began on getting permissions to proceed with the project. At first it was slow, Raphael recalls, but before long, the filmmakers were filming in places that few, if any, had been allowed before.
“What’s great,” Raphael said, “is the way this project is evolving: it’s similar to the way an astronaut’s career evolves. You start outside the space program, and then you get to the rockets.”