Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch have, cumulatively, lived almost a year and a half in space.
Alongside the science and space walks of their International Space Station missions, Koch and McClain also participated in an unusual assignment, even for people orbiting 250 miles above the Earth’s surface: chronicle – through a 360-degree video camera – what space exploration is like and why it matters.
Their footage, and much more shot on and outside the ISS, form the cornerstones of The Infinite, a massive in-person virtual reality experience slowly touring the country and, eventually, the world. The Infinite is the result of the largest production ever filmed in space, as is the cinematic VR series Space Explorers, available to watch on headsets at home. Both immerse you in recordings from the ISS that feel uncannily real, even to astronauts who lived there themselves.
“The first time I put on an Oculus headset, the first thing I had to do was immediately take it off,” Koch said at The Infinite’s opening night in Houston. “When the lights came up in the film and around me was the space station that I remembered as my home, I wasn’t ready. And that’s not because I spent 11 months on the space station and I wasn’t ready to be back there. I wasn’t ready to have to say goodbye again.”
On the sidelines of The Infinite’s opening, Koch and McClain spoke to CNET about how uniting science with art can catalyze inspiration and why sriracha on raw onion may be a pinnacle of ISS cuisine. The following is an edited Q&A.
There are senses we can’t experience with VR. Could you help fill in some of the blanks? What does the ISS smell like?
Koch: The smell of space – you only get it every once in a while if there’s a visiting cargo spaceship when you first open the hatch. You get a little whiff of it. It’s not necessarily space itself, but what you smell is very metallic, almost like an atomic oxygen. And it’s very distinct. It’s probably the reaction of the metals to the space environment, as all that hardware on the hatch of the cargo vehicle is coming to the space station.
Is there a terrestrial touchpoint for that smell?
Koch: No, it’s the opposite of terrestrial.
McClain: I used to describe it as metallic burnt toast.
What about the feeling of touch?
Koch: Floating. The sensation of being like Spider-Man and being able to just jump up onto the ceiling, and to have your orientation change so down feels like up as soon as you’re in a new spot.
You can’t capture that in VR, because you’re going to be standing in gravity. But what you can capture – and why it’s so important to have a three-dimensional camera – is that there’s stuff everywhere. In VR, you can look in every direction, and you can sense that directionality space gives us.
Do you have any taste memories from your time on the ISS?
McClain: Space affects everybody a little bit differently. But taste is, for the most part, a little bit numbered. I remember when we arrived, there was a cargo vehicle with fresh fruit and other things for the crew – and a fresh onion. The crew before us just started passing around slices of it. I thought I’m never going to eat a raw onion, and then a couple months later, I was like “Oh give me some of that raw onion!”
Koch: The taste of space to me is sriracha sauce. Because of that dulling, I put hot sauce on everything, really. And to this day, if I have sriracha, I’m transported back to space.
What do you think is the deepest value of an exhibition like The Infinite? Is it inspiration, is it education, is it both?
McClain: One of the things you can’t re-create in VR is the stillness. Those moments in the evening, those quiet moments on the weekend, where you’re reflecting and you’re really taking it in. I really, truly wish everybody could see Earth from space. But they can come here and let themselves feel for a minute, just to stop and look at our Earth and take it in.
I bring this up with this question about the value of inspiration: If people can come here and experience not just the motion and everything that’s going on, but the stillness, the reflection and a sense of the enormity – of the size of our universe and our planet, but also the fragility, how we’re all in this together.
The Infinite is a testament to art and science working together. When you were on station, did you have any meaningful moments where art helped you connect with humanity or with Earth?
Koch: Being able to be a part of this creative process was a big thing for me in space. It enriched my time on board because it carved out time where I got to think very differently than when following a technical procedure, than when I’m thinking about how I could be maximally efficient in a certain given time. It just allowed me to stop and think about what would tell a story and what would be beautiful. Those are things that we don’t normally have time for in our scheduled days.
McClain: For me, it was listening to music. It humanized the station for me. Or watching a video from home or watching a TV show. It gives you a chance to escape that environment and go home for a minute.
Koch: You know what? I did a bit of drawing. It’s funny because I’m such a bad artist, I never do it in real life – but it was so important to me to create something physical that I could send home on a cargo vehicle that I could give to my husband and he would hold the same thing that I created.
What was your own inspiration to become an astronaut?
Koch: For me, I actually don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an astronaut. I was that little 5-year-old who wanted to be one and just never grew out of it. It just changed over time to become more real and more tangible.
McClain: Similar to Christine, I don’t remember ever wanting to be an astronaut. When my mom took me to pre-K, she said the other kids were crying, they didn’t want to leave, and she said I grabbed my lunchbox and said, “I’m going to school to be an astronaut.” And then when I was 6 years old, I wrote a little book not just about going to space but being on the Soyuz, which is the Russian vehicle I ended up launching on.
You talked about the value of inspiration. Every kid is inspired and passionate about something, and then the world somehow convinces them that they need to be realistic. It’s really important for everybody – not just kids, but all of us – to remember what we’re passionate about, to be unrealistic about our dreams and then be realistic about our paths.
Do you have thoughts on STEM education and how more kids can see their dreams in those fields as realistic?
Koch: A big part is sharing how much more a field in STEM can be than just the math that you do or the science that you do. It’s about contributing to a better world. It’s about being on a team and having partners. And it’s not just what it looks like, maybe, in school. Sharing a bigger picture is important.
McClain: [As astronauts,] we didn’t possess anything at 10 years old that most 10-year-olds out there don’t have already. What we did was: We rededicated ourselves when we failed. We took the challenging classes that scared us a little bit. We didn’t self-eliminate out of the process. So it’s getting kids into STEM but then also saying, “Hey, it’s OK if it’s hard. If you like it, just keep at it. It doesn’t matter how fast you learn it, just learn it.”
You’re both part of the Artemis program returning to the moon. With the prospect of putting women and people of color on the moon, how is the space program advancing inclusivity?
Koch: We have collectively made the decision that it is an important part of the mission. It’s not just about going to the moon. If we’re not going [there] by all and for all, then we’re not truly meeting our mission. We’re not answering humanity’s call to explore if we’re not doing that with all of humanity.
So it’s not necessarily about celebrating the one person who is first. It’s about celebrating the collective place that we all have come to, recognizing that the most important thing is everyone has a level playing field to pursue their passions and to work equally hard to achieve their dreams.
McClain: We’re going to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon because that’s who the astronaut corps is right now. And it’s not because anybody was pulled into the astronaut corps. It was because barriers were taken down, and people rose up. If you look at the bios of the astronauts, nothing’s changed. It takes the same skills. But what you see is the effect of the last 40 years of barriers coming down.
We’re going to celebrate this, but we also have to look back and ask: Who still has a barrier? Transgender kids right now do not feel like they have the same access. That barrier has to come down. Because maybe the person who’s going to cure cancer, or who’s going to land on Mars, is a transgender 12-year-old right now, and that person needs to be able to achieve, too.