On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said Americans would land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Fifty years ago this week, NASA fulfilled Kennedy’s pledge.
But while the space agency marched toward the moon, the nation was consumed by politics—from the fight for civil rights to the Vietnam War. And while the Apollo program captured the imagination of Americans when the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, there was significant opposition to the program’s cost both before and after that historic moment.
Now, after decades of less-ambitious manned space exploration, humans are aiming for the stars again. Elon Musk is leading the way among billionaire entrepreneurs with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., lofting rockets from the same Florida pad used by Apollo 11 and inspiring awe with balletic booster landings. NASA, meanwhile, has been working toward an inaugural blastoff of its Space Launch System, a vehicle that would play a key role in an international return to the moon, and eventually a mission to Mars.
As in the 1960s, political division and terrestrial priorities have left many cold when it comes to space. While NASA has announced $50 million tourist trips to its side of the International Space Station (ISS) and even opened it to commercial use, getting people to look up at the night sky with fascination has become mission critical to getting public, political and financial support.
Felix Lajeunesse, a Canadian and co-founder of a Montreal-based cinematic virtual reality (VR) studio, hopes to be part of the solution to NASA’s problem. The 38-year-old is the creative force behind a VR documentary effort aboard the ISS, working with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the station, and Time.
While NASA has participated in many documentaries over the years and maintains a significant footprint on social media, this latest collaboration aims to leverage cutting-edge media technology at a time when the space program needs it most. The hope is to accomplish through cinematic VR what in 1969 was left to grainy television broadcasts.
NASA plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. But the program requires tens of billions of dollars in additional funding from Congress, and public support has been less than overwhelming. A recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago shows Americans don’t consider exploration a priority. While 68% said it’s very or extremely important for the space program to monitor threatening asteroids, only 27% said the same about sending astronauts to Mars.
Felix & Paul Studios, the six-year-old company co-founded by Lajeunesse, has worked with NASA before (as well as Cirque du Soleil and professional basketball star LeBron James). The planned six-part VR documentary, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, which is to be released next year, may serve two goals—increasing popular interest in the nascent technology and sending humans back out into space.
“What virtual reality brings is a sense of you being able as an audience member to experience these things first hand, as if you’re a crew member,” Lajeunesse said. “This emotional, visceral connection between the millions of people of planet Earth and space exploration through the medium of virtual reality is very real. That will ultimately better connect audiences to this universal project of space exploration.”
A more recent survey may lend his endeavor some hope: Gallup found last week that (perhaps as a result of all the hoopla tied to the 50th anniversary) a majority of Americans expressed support for NASA, NASA funding, and, for the first time, a mission to Mars.
The two-decade old ISS, a 460-ton platform orbiting 250 miles above Earth, has hosted both government and private research. Lately, it’s been home to an additional piece of equipment—a nine-lens VR camera customized by Felix & Paul to film some of the station’s personnel as they go about their daily lives.
The 360-degree device captures experiments, exercise routines and social moments. It’s already documented preparations for capture and departure of the most recent supply ship sent aloft by SpaceX, and there are plans to record a space walk. One former NASA official said life aboard the ISS functions as a snapshot of what space exploration will look like in the future.
“We’ve had humans living permanently in space for the past 18, going on 19, years,” said Dave Williams, 65, a former Canadian astronaut and the first non-American to serve as a senior manager for NASA. “When we think about sending humans back to the moon and creating a lunar gateway space station, it will be the same model.”
Obtaining permission to film aboard the ISS—not to mention getting the equipment up there—took some doing, said Lajeunesse. Joining forces with Time, which has a history of projects with NASA (and is making its own documentary about the making of The ISS Experience), certainly helped.
With the camera in fixed positions, the astronauts are filmed doing specific activities or making personal observations to viewers. In one clip, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques discusses his initial difficulty moving around the station, and how hard it is to track time when every 24 hours includes 16 sunrises.
Dylan Mathis, a communications manager for the ISS program, compared the effect of 360 cinematic VR has on today’s viewers to what broadcasting live, color television from the moon did for people in the 1970s.
VR viewers of the documentary will be able to focus in on Saint-Jacques, or look left and catch a glimpse of his floating American counterpart, Anne McClain. In the background, mustard and hot sauce bottles can be seen. Secured to a table with Velcro, VR makes them appear to be with a viewer’s reach. In another segment, McClain can be seen exercising on different machines as she explains in voice over the negative impacts low gravity has on the human body.
The ISS Experience will be available on VR platforms such as Oculus, as well as in augmented reality (AR), a format that lets users project digital images through mobiles phones or headsets. While growing, the market for VR and AR is far from mass adoption. Some 7.6 million headsets will be shipped worldwide this year, according to market research firm IDC—a 30% increase from 2018. Bloomberg Intelligence compares the industry in its current state to smartphones before the iPhone. Headsets are still bulky and their streaming band too weak, with disappointing resolution.
“We are getting there, but we are not there yet,” said Bloomberg Intelligence Senior Analyst Jitendra Waral. The rollout of 5G and Apple’s AR features for developers will help demand take off around 2021, said Waral. He expects the combined market for hardware and software, just $4.5 billion last year, to skyrocket to $65 billion by 2022. Other catalysts will be Sony’s expected PlayStation 5 console, stand-alone headsets and mass manufacturing of waveguide optics, a key component for thinner and lighter products.
Tech and media giants such as Facebook Inc. and Walt Disney Co. have started pouring money into VR content and content providers. That includes Felix & Paul, which counts the venture capital arm of Comcast Corp. among its investors. For now, though, the studio is shouldering the approximately $4 million cost of the series.
Along with Time, it’s also plotting broader distribution plans, in particular museum travel exhibits and an accompanying app.
“We’ve got 7.6 million people that follow us on Instagram,” said Jonathan Woods, Time’s global head of video. “The awareness that we’re able to drive around this project is something that has a direct benefit.”