The Astronaut Interview: Of iPods, Thunderstorms, and Alarm Clocks in Space

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If Avatar changed the game for fictional 3D films, then Hubble 3D is the nonfiction genre’s attempt to take the next, visceral step.

Putting IMAX cameras up into orbit, both in an around the space shuttle’s cargo bay, we get a sense not only of the beauty of Earth, and the crispness of the cosmos, but also of just how agonizing and tedious it must be to work as an astronaut. We think of the suit, and the weightlessness; but it’s really a job about precision and perfection. Experts in space, trained to have the super-human patience to get a job done just right, no matter what the complications. With absolutely no room for error. (More at Techland: March Madness, With Monsters – Our 64 greatest villains duke it out)

Hubble 3D opens across numerous institutional IMAX screens this Friday, then expands wider in April – and ideally even wider to mainstream multiplex screens later this summer. But in advance of the film’s release, I found myself in Washington, D.C. last week, chatting up the astronauts of the 2009 Hubble repair mission, feeling a little embarrassed by all my fanboy questions. (Check out my essay about Hubble 3D’s stunning use of the telescope’s imagery)

They were trained to operate the IMAX cameras, and I could have talked to them plenty about the intricacies of their telescope repairs or the act of directing a film from orbit. But to be honest, even as a jaded New Yorker, when I was sitting down with both Michael J. Massimino and K. Megan McArthur, I found it hard not to revert to my younger days, when I was in awe of all things outer space. There are a few moments in Hubble 3D when we see these men and women, dangling to a tether in space, the Earth spinning below, and you can’t help but be reminded about what a towering feat this is – lifting humans beyond our frail atmosphere.

But enough about all that. I spent a good 30 minutes with two astronauts, and thought I’d share – nerd to nerd – my three favorite anecdotes:

Clearly one of Massimino’s favorite parts of going into space is the iPod playlist.

He says he loved saddling up to the one of the shuttle’s front windows and staring down – or sometimes up – at the planet, particularly during the two extra days the crew got in space, due to weather-related landing delays. Massimino said he had specific soundtracks that he preferred for day passes over Earth, versus evening passes (astronauts see a sunrise or sunset about every 45 minutes while in Low Earth Orbit). During the evening, it was more epic instrumental music. Soundtracks to films like Dances With Wolves or Thomas Newman’s compositions for Meet Joe Black. And then some of the more epic pop tunes by U2 – like One.

During the day, he says, it was all about U2, Sting, Coldplay, Genesis, etc. The one thing Massimino says he could never quite get to work was Billy Joel, particularly the tune “Big Shot.” I guess some dance hits just don’t work in zero gravity.

While others in the shuttle were watching movies or chatting, Massimino said that this was his own little slice of heaven: Grooving out to an iPod, gazing out at the Earth rotating by. And ironically, this soundtrack has allowed him to extend his space mission; when he came home, and later heard those same tracks back on Earth, his mind was taken back into space. “I was grabbing food at LAX one day, and I heard this Genesis song that just stopped me dead in my tracks…and I was able to tell Bono in person that every time I listen to ‘One’ now I can just go back to that place in orbit, staring down at nighttime thunderstorms over Australia, the lightning filling the sky for miles. You hear the song, and you can just see it again.” (More at Techland: The best android apps to get you started)

McArthur says that the spacewalks on this mission were so intense and difficult that when they finally came to an end, she was startled to see a crewmate so euphoric about their success he actually overslept the next morning. He hit the snooze button. In space. “They gently wake you up from Earth,” McArthur told me, describing how an alarm and then some music is pumped into your ears to rouse you from your tethered sleeping bag. But the morning after the final spacewalk, one of her colleagues slept past the alarm, then past the music, and never flinched when the entire crew started working around him. “I started to wonder: Is he dead?” No doubt that would have made the headlines.

No, he wasn’t dead, just relieved, but it turns out you can indeed oversleep, even when sharing a shuttle bay with a handful of astronauts.

The one anecdote that gave me chills was Massimino describing one of his final spacewalks, which unexpectedly became something of a sightseeing mission. He had completed the bulk of his duties, but his partner still needed some time to finish, so Massimino was told to strap himself in and just hang tight. With almost an hour to kill, he dangled from the spaceship, with an unobstructed view of Earth. He started over the Pacific ocean, recognized Hawaii floating by, and then only 10 minutes later he was over the Gulf Coast, watching Florida zip past.

Off in the distance, he could see the line moving across the earth, with daylight to the left and nighttime to the right, the line of the sun zipping across the surface. “There is no blacker black than that, when the sun disappears and you see the stars. They don’t twinkle when you’re up there, because you’re not looking through atmosphere, and then you see the line coming again and it’s the whitest white you can imagine, to see the sun come through. There’s no way you can describe it. You can see that line spinning around the Earth, where it’s day on one side and night on the other. Amazing.”

He may say it’s indescribable, but hearing Massimino talk, I can kind of see it in my mind’s eye. The United States racing by below, the celestial dance underway, the beauty and the power of it all suddenly becoming clear.

Hubble 3D taps into some of that, as we see Hawaii rotating from orbit, in crystal-clear high-def IMAX. For us, it looks pretty cool, but no doubt for Massimino, it was a life-changing spectacle. Just imagine: When they are up there, they can see all that humanity is, from one edge to another. They see the ends of the Earth, and the blackness beyond. Wild stuff.

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