The new mega-doc series One Strange Rock seeks to tell the story of Earth.
Launching on National Geographic on March 26, it’s a vast undertaking, filmed across 45 countries, six continents, and even from outer space.
It takes a very galactic view of Earth. Imagine, if you will, that an extraterrestrial spaceship is heading for Andromeda and suddenly locates Earth on its ultra high-end scanning device. Calling up the properties of our planet, its crew learn how the Earth creates and regulates oxygen, that its inhabitants formed from single-cell bacteria, that its extreme environment includes global dust storms and collapsing glaciers, and that the sun expels devastating particles and deadly radiation, yet provides the means for life.
Few beings have such an overarching perspective of our planet (that we’re aware of), but astronauts do.
That’s how One Strange Rock frames its out-of-this-world view. It drafted eight astronauts (Chris Hadfield, Jeff Hoffman, Mae Jemison, Jerry Linenger, Mike Massimino, Leland Melvin, Nicole Stott, and Peggy Whitson)—who have 1,000 days in space between them—to anchor an episode each; the entire series is hosted and narrated by Will Smith.
NatGeo held a press event in Los Angeles recently and PCMag went along to interview Stott (described by Will Smith, in his onscreen voiceover, as “a badass”). During her 27 years at NASA, she spent 104 days in space, first traveling to the International Space Station as part of the crew of STS-128. In 2009, Stott performed a six-hour and 39-minute spacewalk, and two years later, she was on the final flight of the Shuttle Discovery.
On One Strange Rock, Stott hosts Episode 2, which explains how Earth was sculpted from cosmic violence due to random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. We sat down with her to talk about spacewalks, shuttles, gravity, and her role in on the show. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Firstly, tell us how you got involved with One Strange Rock. Did Darren Aronofsky have your home phone number in Florida?
Ha! No. The folks from Nutopia called me in 2015, and I thought the concept was just so fresh. At first I wondered why the astronaut connection, but then I got it. One Strange Rock—yes. It is. This is our home. And when you take the time to think about it, it’s pretty wild to think about our home as a planet, and that we are all Earthlings. I am really pleased with how the series has turned out. I think everyone who watches it will feel like they’ve been re-introduced to the awesomeness of our home planet.
So let’s talk about your experience in space, which gave you the perspective the producers wanted on One Strange Rock. When you were doing that six-hour spacewalk, what was your mission objective?
The mission objective for the spacewalk was to recover science results from materials exposed to the space environment on the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) and Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) hardware, which was located outside of the International Space Station on the Columbus Laboratory; and also the removal of an ammonia tank that had failed several months before our flight—all of this hardware was going to be returned in the space shuttle to the scientists on Earth.
Can you describe what it was like up there during your spacewalk?
Flying in space is surreal. The spacewalk was the most surreal part of the spaceflight experience—to be outside in my own personal spaceship and crawling all around the outside of the ISS and experiencing the planet below me through just the visor of my spacesuit. The highlight for me was riding on the end of the robotic arm, the big crane. I was strapped into the end of the arm and I pulled this box called EuTEF off the end of the space station. As I grabbed it, I’m in the foot restraint, and this box has just been disconnected, then in my mind, I thought: ‘On Earth, this thing would weigh 900 pounds!’ But I could just easily move it, because we were in space. I could move it anywhere I wanted.
A realization of superhero-style powers while in zero-g?
I did think: ‘Wow, I am super strong.’ But then I had to tell myself: ‘Okay, Nikki, don’t get it moving too fast, cause if you do it’s gonna take you with it, or hit the ISS.’ You don’t want to be that person…
But a deeply cool moment. Earthbound laws of gravity just don’t apply up there.
Right! It was a realization of the impressive physics of the entire mission and our role in it. [Sir Isaac] Newton got it right with that whole concept of momentum and laws of motion: What’s in motion, is going to stay in motion.
Going back a bit now. What was your most challenging part of astronaut training?
Learning to speak Russian. When you’re going to the ISS your crew is made of astronauts from all of the international partner agencies, and while English is the official language used on the ISS, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is your rescue vehicle. On the Soyuz and for all the operations that go along with it, everything is in Russian—the procedures, communication to the ground, all the panels are in Russian—everything.
So the comms in your ear are all Russian and you better know what they’re saying? There’s no real-time multi-lingual translation going on?
No. Exactly. All Russian. So you have to be able to communicate—and do so in very technical terms.
How long did it take to get technically proficient in Russian?
A few years. And, I don’t know how I did this—because somehow I got all the way through university without ever taking any foreign languages—so I ended up being 40-something, and learning intensive Russian as my first foreign language.
Impressive. Now tell us what was the most exhilarating aspect of astronaut training.
There are so many things about astronaut training that are exhilarating. I mean just the thought of training as an astronaut is exhilarating. But if I have to pick one aspect of training, I’d have to say the spacewalk training, definitely. You get into the big spacesuit, the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, then are submerged into the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where you learn to go through all the same motions you’ll have to go through up in space. When you get to space though, luckily, you don’t have all the same drag as you experience in the water, because that’s not present in space. Getting from one place to another, on a spacewalk, isn’t the hard part, it’s stopping yourself that can be the problem, so you have to be diligent about that.
But the incumbent physical effects of reentry can’t be easy.
Well, when I came back to Earth, I didn’t land in a Soyuz. That’s a little like being in a car crash when it hits the ground. I got to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in the shuttle, which is a beautiful landing, the way human beings should get back to the ground, a nice glide onto a runway. On my first flight home, after being in space for a little over three months, it’s strange coming back. You’re doing all those lovely swooping “S” turns to dump all that energy, to go from 17,500mph down to 200mph to land. Our commander is talking to us the whole time and counting up the g load as we re-entered: ‘OK, that was point-one-G’ and I remember thinking to myself: ‘How can THAT be only point one?’ No way to really tell before flying how your body is going to respond to getting to space or coming back to Earth—the one thing everyone has in common coming back to Earth and its gravity, though, is feeling really heavy.
Because the pressure is oppressive after being up there in space?
I don’t remember it being oppressive but more really unusual. Once you’ve been up in space in all that liberating, floating zero-g and microgravity feeling, to feel any force on you at all—it’s like ‘Holy Moly! 0g and 1g are two very different environments!’ When you go into space, it’s really amazing how quickly your body and mind work out how to move, and be, navigating that three dimensional space gracefully and when you get back to Earth it figures out how to readapt to the load of gravity. That’s not to say it does it without some challenges, but it’s pretty cool how it adapts.
But reentry to Earth means gravity really kicks in?
It builds up as the shuttle comes into land. Then it’s one g—up to three g—but just briefly, and then the big reality check happens on landing. I remember thinking, ‘This is what we live with, on Earth, every day—gravity is a real load on our bodies.’ You just feel heavy, at first, back on Earth. I had to think a little about holding my neck up, to support my head. Luckily we work out two hours a day on the ISS as a countermeasure to all that, but still, your vestibular system is affected. The bottom half of my leg felt like it weighed 100 pounds as I crawled out of the shuttle and came to the hatch. I had to really focus on my weight-training squats to get me up and out onto the ground again.
In One Strange Rock, we see how astronauts have an incredible perspective on life on Earth. Thanks for sharing with us a little of how you went into space, and what that was like.
You have to go with an attitude of adventure into space, there’s no other way. When I first went up, I remember looking out from the ISS and seeing the outline of Florida, all blue, and thinking, ‘That’s my home, I live there—and then very quickly looking beyond just Florida, but to planet Earth as my home.’ That’s what I hope we communicate, as astronauts, in One Strange Rock, that feeling about this incredible planet we all live on.
One Strange Rock airs on National Geographic on March 26.