Astronaut Scott Kelly recently returned from spending nearly a year—340 days—in space. The purpose of Kelly's mission was to evaluate the health effects of long-term space exposure by comparing his vitals to those of his Earth-bound twin brother. But Kelly's time at the International Space Station was more than just a science experiment: his year in space was also a pop-culture event.
Kelly became the star and producer of a social media reality show about life in low-Earth orbit. He posted amazing updates and photographs on a daily basis, and even held several live Q&A sessions on Twitter. Through his deft use of social media we all got a glimpse of what life in space is really like, and how different it is from what science fiction films of the last century have led us to believe.
It used to be that arts, and especially movies, defined how we imagined our future and even what we aspired to make happen. That meant it was overly romanticized or dystopian depending on the motives of the creator. One of the earliest films to show us what life in space would look like was Pavel Klushantsev’s 1957’s educational pseudo-documentary, Road To The Stars. It's worth revisiting for its role in shaping how space was presented in film in subsequent decades. A landmark of the space adventure genre, its special effects inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and later, Star Wars.
Where Scott Kelly showed us what space is like through the eyes of Twitter and Instagram, our cutting edge communication platforms, Road to the Stars articulated humanity's galactic road map in the most important medium of its time: film.
The Soviet-made movie came out right around the time the first-ever artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched into orbit. Road to the Stars was intended to teach the people of the Soviet Union about the possibilities of space exploration, and excite them ahead of the massive amount of spending the government would do to get them there. The first third of the movie is a didactic lesson on the pioneers of rocketry. The second part, which is now available on YouTube, is where it gets futuristic and, well, pretty crazy:
The booming voice of the announcer and the melodramatic orchestral score give the movie the vibe of a wartime propaganda newsreel. And in a sense it is indeed propaganda, because all of it is speculative, even if based on solid science.
The accuracy is nonetheless eerie: for instance, the cosmonauts experience weightlessness once they've reached orbit. (As far as I can tell, this is the first plausible depiction of a zero-g environment in a movie.) A cosmonaut does a space walk in a full EVA suit tethered to the ship (about 8 years before cosmonaut Alexei Leonov conducted the first ever space walk). And the ship falls back down to Earth using atmospheric braking, just like all the real-life spaceships that came later. They even build a space station. There again the details are rigorously laid out. Cosmonaut-workmen propel themselves in space using small rockets strapped to their backs while they assemble the gigantic doughnut-shaped structure in orbit.
Real life echoes the film. NASA loves capturing photos of its astronauts working in space. It's always hailed as a great achievement, as if to convince everyone that yes, work happens up there. See for instance these amazing views of the ISS assembly:
The Road to the Stars fictional space station is a rotating torus which simulates gravity for its occupants. All the rooms inside have a gentle curvature. The same type of curved sets were later used by Stanley Kubrick.
Life on that fictional space station is nothing short of palatial. It has artificial gravity, a mess hall with bay windows, which later showed up in Star Trek, and even a hydroponic farm. One of the (women) scientists who works on the station is shown relaxing in her own quarters with her cat. She watches a broadcast of ballet on her TV. Space has been tamed. Space is comfy.
Road to the Stars was seminal in shaping the visual language for cinematic treatments of space and thus the way we imagined our presence there. It was the precursor, the movie about space that made all other later science fiction films possible.
Put yourself in the shoes of a late 50s Soviet movie-goer: this must have blown her mind as surely as 2001: A Space Odyssey did for Western audiences ten years later. The real thing, Apollo's Moon landing, broadcast in blurry black and white in 1969, pales by comparison.
But the future did not really pan out as artists and filmmakers had expected. The International Space Station is indeed a beacon of international cooperation and peace through science and engineering. But it is not the kind of comfortable and settled environment imagined by Klushantsev or Kubrick. Space is still hostile. There are not pets on the ISS and no café where people can relax while enjoying the view, and certainly no artificial gravity.
Moving pictures, on the silver screen or on TV, used to be the best way to imagine space. These were the dominant media before the internet. One could stage and calibrate the message more effectively, and hopefully inspire people.
With social media, we traded that grandiose and tightly controlled form of communication for immediacy and intimacy. It's all selfies with the Earth as a backdrop and pee transformed into coffee. At times, Commander Kelly’s life up there on the ISS seemed almost mundane, preoccupied as he was with his many tasks and the labor-intensive job of running a space station.
Yet, you could summon his latest snap at any moment by going to his Instagram or his Twitter feed. He was like one of these social media stars you follow to check out what their lives are really like, and maybe imagine yourself in their shoes for a few minutes.
Commander Kelly’s social media presence drove home the point that everyday life in space is not at all like what was presented by movies. It is mostly messy, cramped and challenging. Things hang out from everywhere. Your body undergoes strange changes in microgravity. Sleeping is complicated, as is personal hygiene and physical maintenance. Astronauts must exercise about two and a half hours a day to prevent losses in muscle and bone mass: NASA’s Tumblr on the topic is very instructive and full of gifs.
(Given the drain of a year in space, it is not surprising that Kelly retired from NASA soon after returning to Earth.)
Except for the amazing vistas of Earth from above, there is very little glamour in space. As an astronaut in orbit, you are both a scientific experimenter and the subject of a big, ongoing scientific experiment. Though at least you can do incredible pranks every once in a while:
The thing though about Commander Kelly's social media streams is that, contrary to movies old and new, his year in space was real. It was direct and unfiltered. It was not a celluloid dream. It was live. That beats any kind of scripted movie or special effects wizardry. Social media brings life in space back down to Earth, so to speak, and drops it in the palm of our hands. Social media makes space more accessible and more personal—but also more mundane.
That direct, almost palpable connection with the public through social media seems to have worked to NASA's advantage. On February 19, NASA announced it had received a record 18,300 resumes for its 2017 class of astronauts. The previous record was 8,000 back in 1978.
If that is not inspiration, then I don't know what is. It does bode well for the future, even if that future is likely to be clunky and unkempt.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.