As the faux space helmet was lowered gently onto my head on Wednesday, I thought about the day's early morning hours, when the world learned that Stephen Hawking had passed away.
The assembled group of now-helmeted press, our headgear emblazoned with the yellow National Geographic rectangle, got the signal to lower the visors. A projector flipped on in each helmet to show a montage of scenes from National Geographic's upcoming docu-series "One Strange Rock." When the video finished, we raised our visors as a group of television producers and real astronauts filed into the room. Executive producer Darren Aronofsky stared at us.
"You guys look silly," he said. He was right.
"One Strange Rock," a co-production between Nutopia ("The Story of Us," "Finding Jesus") and Aronofsky's company Protozoa, intendeds to show viewers the big picture of life on Earth as experienced by astronauts. Will Smith (woo, haha) serves as the show's more relatable narrator while the various astronauts — including Mae Jemison, Peggy Whitson, Chris Hadfield, Leland Melvin and Nicole Stott — drop in and out of the narrative to share their rarefied perspectives. One goal of the series is to impart even a shred of the awe and reverence that comes with an astronaut's frame of reference.
After the projection helmets were whisked away and before moving on to the Q&A portion of the morning, everyone took a moment to consider Stephen Hawking's similarly stirring perspective on existence. The event moderator opened with a famous Hawking quote: "Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet." Aronofsky was struck by the timing of Hawking's passing: the news came at midnight on Pi day, the same day as "One Strange Rock's" New York premiere. He noted that though the show "inherited from [Hawking's] trailblazing," the series effectively flips that famous quote around — once you're in space you're "rediscovering Earth," not looking at the stars.
"He helped us understand the universe," Chris Hadfield said on the panel. "I honor the genius among us. It's rare and it's precious."
Hawking articulated the complexity and wonder of life in a way that moved and inspired millions. You might argue that an astronaut, gifted with anecdotes and lived experiences, should have an easier time engaging their audience than Hawking did. Anyone who has left Earth has had the privilege to see the planet, first hand, from an outsider's perspective. Astronauts do their best to share what they've physically witnessed while Hawking's most resonant wisdom came straight from his mind.
With individuals like Hadfield and Hawking, you don't really need cinematic flair to get their messages across. Hawking could be sharp with his words in a Reddit AMA or on stage cracking a One Direction joke. In Hadfield's striking rendition of "Space Oddity" filmed aboard the ISS, the sight of him floating across a corridor to retrieve a guitar wordlessly captures a fact of life in space, like a clip of a mundane home video sent to us from the future. "It's not weird, distant, robotic esoterics" said Hadfield in our breakout interview. "There are people living off the planet. The accessibility, I think, allows people to include that in their imagination about themselves."
For the currently planet-bound, the "One Strange Rock" helmets are a gallant attempt to simulate the astronaut experience and stimulate people's imaginations. They're not virtual reality headsets, meaning they don't suffer from a constrained field of view nor do they shift the image with your head's movement. They're more like a domed IMAX screen for ants you've stuffed your head into. The short demo of the helmets featured the show's eye-popping footage, sophisticated CG animation and genuine clips shot in space, but it left out the best part: astronauts telling their stories right to the camera.
Seeing Earth from space on an HD television or in a projector helmet can be stunning, but there's still an impossible gulf between that simulacra and the real experience. Compare that to the forever-changed gaze of someone who's left Earth's atmosphere, or to the astonishment plain in their voice? Those go further to make the astronaut's perspective a "real" motivator for viewers' imaginations. Jane Root, executive producer and CEO of Nutopia, was effusive in her praise of the astronauts' storytelling and optimistic about the future of space exploration. "We're an inquisitive species," Root said, "and anything that helps feed those questions is a good thing. If you ask any of the astronauts on the panel, they'll say 'let's ask more questions.'"
I have my questions about the new billionaire-backed space race and still do — and for what it's worth, Stephen Hawking repeatedly cautioned that extreme wealth inequality seriously threatens the survival of humankind — but hearing an astronaut's confidence about the future of space exploration leaves an impression just as hearing them describe their global perspective does.
"It's lovely to be delighted with our own collective ability to do something new," said Hadfield of SpaceX's historic double booster recovery. "The Lunar Lander was Grumman, the space station managed by Boeing. It's always been commercial[…] it's opening doors. A month ago on February 6th, Elon kicked a door open that can never be closed again."
We don't just need those doors open if we hope to reach further into space than we have before — we need them to survive here on Earth, and that means engaging people from across the globe. On the panel, Mae Jemison called for greater diversity of personnel and disciplines in space and space-adjacent science. "As we got into the 'modern space age,'" she said, "so many people were excluded figuratively and literally."
The first hour of "One Strange Rock" takes a more inclusive view of scientific research than many of its peer programs. Viewers are introduced to scientists based in Ethiopia, Brazil and Norway; women and people of color are front-and-center. As their stories are woven into the scientific narrative, redflagging the anthropogenic dangers threatening our planet takes a backseat: Aronofsky estimated that the phrase "climate change" appears just once in the ten-part series. "One Strange Rock" doesn't espouse an apolitical view of life on Earth so much as it wants to draw people in with a diverse and hopeful one.
That morning, with Hawking's absence still stinging, any and all glimmers of hope for our future amongst the stars were welcome solace. It's impossible to quantify how important all our role models, influential books and documentary programs have been to the advancement of humanity's continued investigation and exploration of space. We do know for certain, however, that Stephen Hawking had a monumental impact on hearts and minds.
The scientists and astronauts featured in "One Strange Rock" are well-equipped to build on the inspiration that Hawking gave the world — that is, they are once they've finished the nitty gritty work still ahead of them.
"Drew, Ricky and Oleg," — crew of the 55th ISS expedition, launching next week — "are not thinking about the big picture," said Hadfield. "They're focused on doing their jobs right. Once you've done your job right and pushed back the edge of ignorance a little, then comes the time to make sure that other people benefit from that."
"One Strange Rock" premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Monday, March 26th.