This installment of the Doc Option is a bit off the beaten path. It’s clear that Gravity is the new release to beat this weekend. But while there are plenty of great documentaries about space, there aren’t very many about the danger of space, which is what Gravity is dealing with. So instead of a doc, we’ll be embracing the wider field of nonfiction storytelling and look at two audio-only stories about spacewalks as shared by NASA astronauts. Additionally, these recommendations come as complementary material for, rather than an alternative to, watching Gravity.
The first story is called “A View of the Earth,” and was shared by astronaut Michael Massimino onstage for The Moth. Massimino tells of the difficult job he had making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope during a 2009 mission. Planned as a routine procedure, unanticipated complications extended that particular spacewalk to over eight hours, making it one of the longest to date.
The second story, “Dark Side of the Earth,” comes courtesy of Dave Wolf. Wolf spoke to Radiolab about his experiences in space, in particular an incident during his stay on Mir in 1997, when he was “locked out” of the space station due to an airlock hatch failure. This story is more closely related to the plot of Gravity, which sees two astronauts fighting for their lives after a catastrophic collision with flying debris.
In both stories, the respective tellers talk about what it’s like to orbit the Earth from on high. It’s difficult to comprehend, but people up there are traveling at five miles a second. It takes 90 minutes to complete an orbit, with 45-minute “days” in the sun and 45-minute “nights” in the shadow of the planet. Massimino and Wolf both describe the nights as being a darkness unlike anything we can imagine. They speak of a total blackness, an emptiness that’s both psychologically and existentially overwhelming. This is the backdrop against which their tales take place, and it is the same setting for Gravity. That emptiness is what threatens to swallow up the characters played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock if they make just one mistake.
“Dark Side of the Earth” is disturbing because it describes just what happens to the human body during CO2 suffocation, which is what astronauts face if their air supply runs out. That’s the fate Wolf was looking at when he was trapped outside of Mir during his spacewalk, and it dangles over the heads of the characters in Gravity. For all of the wonder of breaking beyond our world into the wider universe, there are myriad dangers out there as well.
But both stories also speak to the wondrous side of space travel. Massimino shares a revelation he had because of his experiences: that there is not much more “safety” down here than up there. Our planet is itself a spaceship, orbiting the Sun, which circles around the Milky Way the same way he was orbiting Earth during his flights. He talks of how, even though he felt alone for a time during his EVA, he later realized that there were dozens of people working on the same problem he was encountering. He may have felt isolated, but in a cosmic sense he was still right next door to humanity. Wolf talks about what it’s like to simply float in zero gravity, and take in the view of everything that we can see of the Universe from where we are.
Wonder and terror go hand in hand, and while most documentaries about space explore the “wonder” side, these stories venture into the opposite sensation. Everything that comes with leaving the place we’ve evolved to live in is both mystifying and unbelievably scary. We don’t realize how small we are until we get that kind of perspective. “A View of the Earth,” “Dark Side of the Earth,” and Gravity all remind us of this.