What is life like in space? Astronauts share moving memories in new film

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The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station asks astronauts what it’s like to leave everything on earth behind and fly into space.

The wonderful thing: Stories from the space station / brigade advertising

Millions of Americans stared in horror on September 11, 2001 when their televisions blinked with images of hijacked planes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers. Former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson observed from the International Space Station.

He tells of the desperation he felt in orbit when he looked at Earth. The ISS cameras deftly located a seemingly peaceful, cloudless sky over North America and saw the thick billows of smoke rising from Lower Manhattan. His distance from the planet made him aware of his safety from chaos, a safety that seemed almost unfair to him. Culbertson later learned that one of the American pilots on the painfully long list of victims in the attack was his friend.

Like the entire nation, Culbertson was abruptly reminded of what it means to feel human.

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Culbertson’s story is just one of many intimate anecdotes told by international astronauts in the new documentary The wonderful thing: Stories from the space station. It has already appeared in New York and Los Angeles theaters and can be downloaded digitally from services such as Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and Google Play.

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Former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson looks out a window on the ISS.

The wonderful thing: Stories from the space station / brigade advertising

The director Clare Lewins, known for her 2014 documentary I Am Ali about the boxer Muhammad Ali, focuses her film on the silent emotions and experiences that accompany space travel. It does this by diverting attention from the cosmos and placing its discoverers in the foreground.

The Wonderful isn’t really a film about space; It’s a story about the people who turned their lives upside down to go there.

The film is strung together with music from Claire de Lune to rock ‘n’ roll, which is sometimes a little oddly chosen, and cinematic sequences of cruises over the earth, which are sometimes a little longer than necessary. However, the film is carried by minimalist scenes in which astronauts simply share their memories of their trip to the ISS and made it their home.


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Some are notable accounts of the grandeur of the station’s solar panels or the car-crash-like descent back to Earth. Others are charmingly mundane memories, like listening to Coldplay in a space capsule.

Docking with the ISS triggered an “Oh my!” by astronaut Samantha Cristoforreti of the European Space Agency and Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, actually felt like one when she first saw their reflection during a space walk.

Scott Kelly instinctively describes the earth’s atmosphere as a contact lens placed on the planet and recalls his surprise when he was finally invited to an interview with NASA. Like everyone vying for a new job, they worry about which suit to wear.

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ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in the dome of the ISS.

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You can’t help but notice that many of the astronauts share a common past of gazing up at the sky and believing that one day they would be floating among the stars. A bit clichéd, admittedly, her big-eyed childhood dreams reminded me how beautiful it is that people have repeated the desire to shoot for the moon so many times that it has become a trademark of our culture.

Interviews are also interspersed with touching details about what it is like when families are suddenly separated from the clouds.

In a haunting statement, ex-astronaut Cady Coleman’s husband Josh Simpson shares his feelings as his wife’s rocket climbed into the night sky until it became a patch of light in the dark. “It’s amazing to think that someone you love is that point of light,” he says.

Astronauts themselves are asked what it feels like to leave fathers, wives, brothers, children and friends behind – unsure if it would be their last farewell – while the iconic 10… 9… 8 countdown is sung when their rocket launches.

But the pain of leaving one family behind is soon alleviated by entering another. Cristoforreti calls the experience of finally boarding the ISS a “new birth”.

In particular because the film’s testimonials represent global institutions such as NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Russian Roskosmos, the film successfully underscores the role of the ISS as a non-political oasis for adventurers from all over the world embarking on the same mission.

Despite minor flaws, it’s almost impossible to watch this movie and not feel inspired. It’s a grounded version of the classic, epic space documentary that shows how incredible things can be achieved by people – 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 best sums up The Wonderful when he giggles and describes his reaction when his friends ask him what it’s like to have an astronaut mom, “Well, it’s just mom.”

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Former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and husband Josh Simpson.

The wonderful thing: Stories from the space station / brigade advertising

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