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Terry Virts on International Space Station for 'A Beautiful Planet'
NASA astronaut Terry Virts aims his camera through the Cupola, the best window on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

“A Beautiful Planet” is a 3-D visual feast for the eyes, but the astronauts who filmed the IMAX space extravaganza made sure that’s not all it is.

For example, NASA astronaut Terry Virts said he recalled the feeling of life on the International Space Station as he watched the movie today at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. “When I was going down into the Soyuz to say goodbye, I can feel what that suit felt like. Just how to move in weightlessness,” he said.

His crewmate, Kjell Lindgren, was struck by the sounds of a spacewalk.

“The microphone captured the sound coming through the structure of the suit,” he told GeekWire. “The anchors banging around, the sound of the breathing, just the suit flexing, the joints slipping on each other. Just the sensation of what it’s like to move outside, and to see these guys moving around outside. That’s what it feels like. It’s very visceral.”

When a spacewalker’s tether pulled taut, the resulting twang drew a gasp from the audience – as if they were watching a “Gravity”-type thriller, not a real-life documentary about the space station and our planet below.

That’s the kind of scene that producer/director/editor Toni Myers, who’s been in on 10 IMAX movies, loves to spring on filmgoers. “There’s such a thing as a golden eight seconds, and that was one of them,” she said.

Myers, Lindgren and Virts were in Seattle today to give a boost to “A Beautiful Planet,” which had its premiere a little more than two weeks ago. This morning’s audience consisted mostly of schoolkids, which Lindgren said was apropos. “There’s somebody in the audience potentially today … who could be the first person to set foot on Mars,” he told the crowd.

The 45-minute 3-D film, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, takes you through two tours of duty on the space station. You get to see Virts go on a spacewalk with NASA crewmate Butch Wilmore. You get to watch Scott Kelly’s arrival on a mission to spend nearly a year in space.

The camera is rolling when Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tastes a zero-G espresso. (“Wow, that was good,” she says.) It’s also rolling when Kelly and Lindgren sample space-grown lettuce. (“Kinda like arugula,” Kelly says.)

To get those shots, the astronauts themselves were trained in advance of their flights by cinematographer James Neihouse, who also made the trip to Seattle. Some scenes were meticulously planned out – for example, a “Grand Central” moment showing the astronauts crossing paths as they unpacked supplies. Other scenes were improvised, like a shot showing a bag of cookies and a pouch of milk floating in zero-G, waiting for Santa’s Christmas arrival.

“All of a sudden, I thought, ‘We need a cookie scene,'” Virts recalled.

Another spontaneous moment shows Lindgren playing “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes as he looks out on Earth from the space station’s Cupola observation deck. “I had my set of bagpipes, and we thought it would be fun to capture a moment on the space station,” he said.

Interspersed among all those space station moments are plenty of glorious, wall-filling views of Earth as seen from space, at day and at night. “One of my favorite scenes is the aurora sequence with the music in the background, because it reminds me of the aurora that I got to see while I was up there,” Lindgren said. “It is unbelievable that that is not a special effect. … Every time I see that, I get goosebumps.”

But that’s not all. Myers includes 3-D scenes that feature the Curiosity rover’s view of Gale Crater on Mars, the Earth-size exoplanets that circle a star called Kepler-186 and views of flares erupting from the sun. Those otherworldly scenes reinforce the message that Earth holds a special status for humanity, and that there are plenty of frontiers in science and engineering left to explore.

So what about the frontier for space films? Will virtual reality render big-screen movies obsolete? Myers doesn’t think so.

“They said that about TV. When television came along, they said no one will go out to the movies anymore, the movies are dead, it’s going to kill them,” she said. “I don’t think so. People like to go out and share an experience with people, and VR … if there’s anything that isn’t shared, it’s that. You’re totally isolated in your own little box. So I think there’s a place for both.”

And even though NASA astronauts are routinely sharing their pictures via social media, Virts said tweeters will never replace theaters. “Social media is kinda like a cookie,” he said. “And an IMAX movie is like a steak dinner. … Every kid in America, every kid everywhere, should see this movie.”

Lindgren said the view should be even better in a couple of decades, when astronauts are taking trips to Mars.

“We have these HD cameras pointing down at the Earth from the space station, so you can get fairly incredible views when you turn on NASA television,” he said. “To experience Mars with the crew through VR … that is going to change the face of exploration. Not just because we have a rover on the planet, but because you will experience it through commentary and through familiar movement, and see what the crew is seeing. Just think how different it’s going to be. … I’m already thinking about the IMAX camera we’re going to be carrying to Mars.”

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