We literally went to space to learn about Nat Geo’s new documentary series One Strange Rock. Alright, I might have exaggerated slightly, we went to Space Camp. In advance of the premiere, we joined a group of journalists to go boldly where no press day has gone before: Huntsville, Alabama. It’s the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center (for real astronauts and engineers) and U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a museum that houses artifacts from the U.S. space program. More importantly, the Space & Rocket Center is home to Space Camp. So we suited up, made and launched our own mini rockets, and completed simulated space missions. It was a 12-year-olds dream lived out by a bunch of giggling adults constantly making (bad) space jokes.
From the simulated mission control room to the experience of landing the spacecraft in the cockpit, Space Camp is just a modicum of perspective of what it’s actually like to drift in the earth’s orbit. Even so, suspending belief inside the simulations can give you a newfound appreciation for the hard work it takes to study our planet and the vast cosmos that surround us. It’s a feeling audiences will get in a big way when the spectacle that is One Strange Rock premieres on March 26th on Nat Geo.
The 10-part documentary series from Darren Aronofsky (Mother!) and Jane Root is absolutely massive in scope. The series was filmed across 900,000 miles of this round thing we call Earth, with cameras touching ground in 45 countries, six continents, and outer space. The series, hosted by Will Smith, will capture lifeforms small and large, visit extreme climates and habitats, and go where cameras haven’t gone before, including the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, the home to the famous crystal maiden where cameras have been previously banned. Earth’s place in the solar system will also be examined, and who better to do it than the likes of astronauts Chris Hadfield, Leland Melvin, Peggy Whitson, and many more.
In a break from an important Space Camp mission, the director of episode 10, Alice Jones, debriefed her co-pilots on the secrets behind filming One Strange Rock.
What can you tell us about your episode?
Alice Jones: It’s called “Home” and it’s tying everything together and hopefully making people realize that this strange rock that we’ve been talking about all this time is also our home. I’ve got Peggy Whitson and she’s an amazing scientist, but she’s also been in space three times and she was in space through the production and we knew that her homecoming would be in the timeframe of our production, so it was going to be focused on her returning home.
When people film astronauts they’re excited about the launch, but we were excited about the return home. It’s as dangerous and it’s unbelievably dramatic. It also sort of captures that warmth that you have, that feeling of being homesick and wanting to come home of knowing that we’re from here, you’ve gotta come back here, it’s the only place in the universe that we really call home. The only place that we know of like it that you can go and walk outside, take a breath of fresh air, feel that sun on your face, see a sunset. It’s the only place like it, so that’s the kind of feeling that we wanted to capture.
So I filmed across the planet, different people, different places. We filmed the telescopes looking out questioning if there could be anywhere else like our home or whether it’s the only one. So that’s kind of the purpose of my episode and it’s probably weighted slightly more heavily towards the astronaut story then the other ones because it’s about the perspective shift that astronauts go through when they leave home and look back on it and– although they’re the furthest they’ve ever been–they probably feel more connected to their home than they ever have before. For Peggy, it was probably her last trip back home so it’s her final moments in space. Very emotionally time for her but she had to come back.
Obviously I was like well, where’s Peggy’s home? Where’s home for Peggy, and you ask any astronaut and pretty much all of them will say home is Earth. She lands in Kazakhstan, thousands and thousands of miles from where she was born, where she lives, but she’s home as soon as she touches ground, that’s home. But I also did film in the beautiful farmhouse that she grew up in, so that was also nice.
What cameras were you using? Because of your science background that probably wasn’t the first time you were taking out a telescope.
So, we’ve been using red cameras, that’s the main camera, 4K. We’ve been shooting pretty much the whole series in 4K so we’re delivering a lot of footage, a lot of data, on very beautiful cameras, beautiful lenses.
We’ve been taking them everywhere. For the telescope, we were filming it at our receiver observatory in Puerto Rico. It’s a radio telescope so it’s got no pictures, just strange radio signals and sounds. So we were filming displays as opposed to actual images from the universe and I was filming with a group of scientists who were observing stars nearby and trying to develop method for detecting planets around those stars. Our receiver telescope is where they detected the very first planet outside our solar system back in 1992. So it’s only been like 20-25 years that we started to even have an idea that there could be other planets around the sun and now it’s pretty much, people say probably every single star in the night sky has got at least one, if not two planets.
So the numbers are just insanely huge. You ask any astronaut if there is life out there they’re gonna say yes, just like do the math, basically. There’s gonna be life. There’s so many different factors that have to go into creating this planet and the way it is and for us to be here that even having something beyond the level of a single cell would be extraordinary.
How do you bring in a narrative into the scene while also maintaining a focus on the nature aspect of the documentary?
Yeah, that’s a humongous challenge because you go to places and you’ve got to create a little, nice self-contained story that also links to something about asteroids and meteorites. What does a free driver got to do with it, who cares about him?
So it’s trying to find little self-contain stories that are engaging and gripping and take you on a little journey but they all have to have that little hook that links it to the greater narrative. It’s a struggle but that’s what part of the exciting nature of filming documentaries is: You go where things are always different, other stories come up, but you’ve just got to keep it in the back of your mind what is this film about, and sometimes it’s just capturing tiny details.
For the storm episode, we call it storm, which is about the cosmic collisions, we filmed a story about kids having water fights in India and it’s capturing in slow motion the moment the water bomb hits the ground and suddenly it’s not a water bomb anymore it’s a meteorite bringing water to the surface of the Earth in the late heavy bombardment, which is a period which scientists propose we were invaded asteroids that contained water and brought liquid water to the surface of the planet. But you tell that in a water bomb hitting the ground but it’s because you captured that moment in slow motion, you heighten your senses to it, you focus your attention to it. Sometimes the tiny details in the filming that allow that meta narrative to carry through the micro narrative. It’s a challenge, it might not work, it might work, you’ll be the judge.
What was a really joyful moment for you when you were working on your episode? So like what stands out, where you felt a lot of awe or happiness?
Well, that’s kind of a feeling I want to capture in my episode, that feeling of awe and happiness. I’ve been trying to get scenes that do that. One of the stories I filmed was the Holi festival in India, which is a spring festival. It’s kind of like a festival of life, a celebration of life and happiness and it coincides with the season of Onam, in India, which is spring, so the sun comes out, flowers come out and they just throw paint everywhere and we went to their traditional area in India where they celebrate this and in a temple with a load of widows, who don’t usually get to celebrate and they had piles, and piles and piles of flower petals and the whole place smelled of roses and they were just throwing them up in the air and the sun was there and it was like, God, we live on this amazing place and people do ridiculous things, like this, they throw flower petals and paint everywhere. But isn’t it brilliant? That we can do this and we can live here? That was really good.
But I think probably, the most special moment for me was being at Peggy’s farm, the place she grew up, when she returned home to greet her mom and dad after spending nine and a half months in space. So her parents are elderly, they live on a farm, it’s beautiful. I filmed there a few times across the year and then to stand there on the porch, behind mom and dad. Dad in a wheelchair, mom standing there, and I watched her drive around the corner and give them a hug. That’s the homecoming and that’s the feeling that – it’s an emotional feeling that we’ve all experienced and that’s the feeling that she gets when she hits the ground, as well, just in Kazakhstan, when she lands in her capsule.
So it’s trying to mix all these emotions and have this personality drive it through but it hopefully helps you have a greater perspective shift about the planet and the universe that we live in. It’s hard to mix those things together but hopefully we’ll get it.
What do you think is going to come as the biggest surprise to viewers as we’re watching your episode?
I hope it will be seeing space and the Earth from space in that way and hearing the astronauts talk about it. So we’ve got these eight astronauts who’ve all this profound life changing experience which isn’t about leaving the planet and looking into the universe, it’s about looking back at their home and they see it in a totally different way. They see it glow with life, they see the colors, and they’re so divorced from it in that experience of being in those gray, white, airless cabins with no other living thing other than us and the astronaut you’re living with, maybe a bit of lettuce that you grow for an experience. Like it’s sterile. To go for a walk you’ve got to spend two weeks preparing your space suit and going through the checks and through all those lists and then they look back at their home where they know what home is, they know it’s a place where they can just live and feel comfortable and happy and warm, too, and so we asked them what. What is it like to look at the Earth from space and do you want to go to back and how hard was it leaving and they all welled up. You could see it.
It’s a real emotional experience for them and I hope when people watch it they might start to feel that shift that the astronaut’s went through, which doesn’t just change their outlook there and then, it changes their outlook when they’re back on the ground. A lot of them say there’s not a day that goes by without them thinking about that view and it changes how they behave to people that they sit next to on the tube.
So hopefully, it might not be a huge shift that an audience goes through but it will be subtle, they might start to feel slightly differently. There’s this term called the overview effect, which a lot of astronauts experience going through where they have this profound shift about how they see the planet and the fragility and loneliness of our little Earth in the vastness of space that makes them change how they behave in the future.
One Strange Rock premieres on March 26th at 10:00 p.m. EST on National Geographic.