I am drifting inside the International Space Station, an apparition floating from one compartment to the next. A constant mechanical thrum pulses like a heartbeat in my ears, but the station has the stillness of nighttime. I’m surrounded by details to explore, but I’m on a mission. I want to find the famous cupola, the geometrically windowed spot with my best chance of glimpsing our blue marble from 250 miles above.
Regrettably, though, I’m not literally floating. Mine was a virtual sojourn on the ISS, thanks to a massive in-person virtual reality installation called The Infinite. Giving a headset and stepping into an open space bigger than a basketball court, you encounter The Infinite’s main attraction, a life-sized replica of the ISS that’s yours to explore.
While space tourism is putting zero-gravity spaceflights within reach of the hyper-rich, The Infinite offers a virtual excursion to the outer atmosphere for those of us priced out of a half million dollar ticket. And at a time when our world is riven by pandemic and war, even this brief, simulated respite from our planet democratizes a chance at the overview effect: the humbling and uniting sensation of looking down at Earth and understanding how the entirety of all known life in our universe is there, just there, on that silent sphere of swirling color hanging in infinite blackness.
“I really, truly wish everybody could see Earth from space,” Anne McClain, an ISS astronaut featured in The Infinite, said after her first trip through the installation at its opening in Houston. If people can come to this project, she said, they may feel that sense not only of the enormity of our universe and our planet “but also the fragility, how we’re all in this together.”
The Infinite’s ISS isn’t a meticulous full-scale model, though. The walls of this ISS are semi-transparent and intangible. The station is sparse, dim and still, like it’s frozen in time. Dotted around you are orbs glowing coolly blue. After you reach out to touch one, everything extinguishes to black before reigniting inside a vivid, 360-degree capture from the real ISS, like you’ve suddenly dropped into the ISS’ photographic memory.
Sometimes in these moments, an ISS astronaut like McClain or Christina Koch join you to narrate a moment of space life. Other times, you simply watch the Earth rotate silently below.
“Many people think that when we explore space, when we do science, that we’re doing it to learn where we’re going,” Koch said to a crowd gathered at the installation’s opening in Houston. “We’re actually not. We’re doing it to learn about ourselves and about the place that we left — and that’s what this does. It does it in a human way. It does it by sharing the smallest things and the biggest things.”
The Infinite is as big as they come. At 12,500 square feet and capable of hosting 150 people in VR simultaneously, The Infinite is the world’s largest in-person VR exhibition. And its bedrock is footage shot during the biggest film production ever in space, a collaboration between NASA and Felix & Paul Studios producing more than 200 hours of VR recordings on the ISS over nearly three years.
Felix & Paul, led by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, is a Montreal-based VR production company behind one of the world’s first VR films and a VR documentary putting you inside the White House’s Oval Office with Barack Obama.
The ISS footage has already yielded an Emmy-award winning VR documentary called Space Explorers, which is available to watch on the Oculus Quest. The Space Explorers series followed the conventions of traditional cinema storytelling, with linear episodes and character arcs, according to Lajeunesse.
But for The Infinite, “we wanted audiences to not sit and watch a film per se,” he said. “We wanted them to actually just be there, feel like they’re part of the crew and explore the space station.”
Roaming the ISS replica, people could encounter an astronaut talking to them while doing science, he added, then encounter another astronaut preparing to sleep. “That’s what would happen if you were on the real space station flying around.”
To create The Infinite as a physical exhibit, Felix & Paul joined forces with PHI Studio, a company that specializes in immersive installations.
Rather than the kind of virtual ISS installation you might find at a Smithsonian museum or science center, The Infinite is meant to highlight the emotions and poetry of space exploration, said Phoebe Greenberg, the founder of PHI.
To achieve that, the installation incorporates more than just the virtual ISS. It starts with an entry chamber — a triangular white room with glowing seams that acclimatizes your frame of mind to space, with an astronaut narrating the feeling of launching. After you explore the ISS, you sit down for a short VR film showing the first space walk captured in virtual reality, and then you wend your way through art pieces, a path that conceptually riffs on a return journey from outer space back to Earth.
Together, Felix & Paul and Phi created the free-roaming experience to accommodate 150 people every hour. As you walk around the virtual ISS, the avatars of other participants materialize when you draw near them. If you visit The Infinite with friends, everyone in your group will share a shining orb of the same color inside their chests. As I wandered The Infinite, I could overhear Koch, who holds the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman, excited to give her husband a tour of the space station where she lived apart from him for 11 months.
“We tend to think about VR as an experience that we live as an individual because we’re contained within the headset,” Greenberg said. “We wanted to figure out a way that this adventure could be as a collective.”
More to explore
After premiering in Montreal last year, The Infinite is ending a four-month stint in Houston on Sunday to reopen next in the Seattle area on May 21. Its producers are aiming to bring the experience to three cities per year through 2026, including San Francisco and Richmond, Virginia, later this year and New York and Los Angeles in 2023. They hope to widen The Infinite’s tour internationally. The short VR film of the spacewalk is also showing at the TED conference in Vancouver through Thursday.
I succeeded in my mission of finding the cupola, indulging myself by spending more of my limited minutes there than anywhere else. As I floated in the cupola, gravity’s force was holding my body comfortably on our planet’s surface in Houston. Even on this simulated trip to the outer reaches of our atmosphere, the attraction of Earth was still drawing me toward it.
If you visit The Infinite, you may be drawn to spying Earth from above, like me. But McClain offered a suggestion for another view you should take in: looking out into the infinity of the universe beyond.
“One of my most profound moments in my own humanity was on the outside of the space station during a spacewalk,” she said at The Infinite’s opening ceremony in Houston, to a crowd of NASA colleagues and guests. “Holding onto a handrail, I looked down, and I looked at Earth. I see my feet that have taken me all the way through life. I had this moment, of just looking at that point: That’s my feet, and that’s the entire Earth. Everything we’ve ever known is on that planet.
“But the thing is: Earth is the closest thing to us. Because then you turn around, and you look out — and it’s just vast. It’s the biggest thing your eyes can take in. And in this experience, when you’re outside the space station there at the end, I wanted to feel that again. The first thing I did was look away from the space station. It just tells you how much more we have to explore.”