Much of the talk about Earth these days is how we’ll communally exit it — via NASA or SpaceX, done in by our own bad habits or getting pulverized by the sort of cosmic event that got us here in the first place. That doesn’t sit well with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.
Aronofsky, who trained as a field biologist, teamed with the “mega-documentary” experts at Nutopia and an eight-pack of well-spoken astronauts to craft One Strange Rock, a mesmerizing 10-episode love letter to our home planet, co-anchored by Will Smith and the space travelers and airing on National Geographic.
The series is a visual feast, a worldwide travelogue cum natural history lesson that Aronofsky describes as “not just a film about animals, not just a film about cultures, not just a film about science, but blending them all together [to] tell a story that’s emotional. The breakthrough came when we stumbled on this idea of working with astronauts. … They all had this different perspective on the planet that was magnificent, seeing our home from outside. It’s easy, when you’re inside this world, to forget that we’re all sharing everything and how all these cycles work to make this incredible machine.”
Each astronaut anchors an episode (sometimes two) tied to their training, sharing their own interplanetary insight on how and why Earth’s creatures breathe and think, the violence that made Earth inhabitable, and how Earth protects itself from the sun, then gives and takes life itself.
But Rock also spotlights what showrunner Arif Nurmohamed calls “the really wonderful, emotionally connective nature of ordinary people around the world living their lives.” People like French free diver Guillaume Néry, who demonstrates Earth’s tenuous place in the cosmos in the very place where the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs struck. Or Moroccan children hunting the elusive meteorites earth scientists clamor for. Or the hundred thousand Buddhists who gather at Thailand’s Dhammakaya temple, made of a million gold Buddhas, to meditate on the need for balance and order on Earth.
“Space is incredible and astonishing, but there’s also amazing things about the air that we breathe, the soil that we stand on, our skin and having a real understanding of how everything fit together,” explains Nutopia’s Jane Root, whose team mined the minds of hundreds of scientists and specialists. “You have to love and cherish Earth in order to save it and feeling how special it is is really important if we’re going to energize ourselves to make a big effort to look after it more.”
And so, the series inspires a childlike sense of wonder — a welcome way to leave behind the troubles in your world by immersing yourself in the magic of our world. “That’s a really important thing, actually saying, ‘Think about the Earth rather than humanity for a moment,’” Root explains. “For a few hours, just invest in how extraordinary Earth is.”
Cosmic Rock Stars Talk One Strange Rock
Peggy Whitson — NASA astronaut, 665 days in space
Host: “Home: There’s No Place Like Home”
“My first time on a shuttle, my first task was going to be to go film the liquid fuel tank for the shuttle as it separated from the orbiter. This is my first thing to do as an astronaut. So I had to get my gloves off, get my helmet off, unstrap, float for my first time up to the flight deck, get a camera out of the little locker, and film it. I had it all choreographed. I knew exactly where I was going to do it, how I was going to do it — and I get up there and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, look at the Earth!’”
Jeff Hoffman – Astronaut, astronomer, 21.5 million miles in space
“I’m an astronomer by training, and one of the things I really wanted to know is what was the sky going to look like from space. … The earth at night is surrounded by a halo, the aurora, which I never got tired of looking at. Looking at the earth in conjunction with the sky, I never got tired of the fact that you could fly over the northern sky and then see the southern sky all in one night-time. You see the Northern Cross and then the Southern Cross 15 minutes later. It’s a totally different perspective.”
Chris Hadfield — Canadian astronaut, International Space Station commander, 166 days in space
Host: “Gasp,” “Escape”
“Being outside on a space walk, there’s a tiny little bit of plastic between you and everything and that’s it. You get to draw your own conclusions. This show takes that and illuminates it so well — takes everything around the whole world and puts it there in front of you in a beautiful, artistic way, up close. … If you’re a little kid watching that and you can see the link between what people are doing and the complexity of the planet, that can be hugely inspiring as to what you’re going to do in your own life.”
Mae Jemison — NASA astronaut, eight days in space
Host: “Genesis: Earth Gives Birth to Life,” “Alien: The Freak Accident Behind Complex Life”
“The reason I wanted to do this show was not so much about telling the story about space, but to tell the story about how Earth came to life. This is something that I loved as a little kid, so I advocated to do the stories about genesis, about life from lifelessness, and also about how life became big and alien. That’s one thing that we all want to know. What they were able to do was to tell that story in a way that people can access it. It’s an extraordinary adventure.”
Nicole Stott — NASA astronaut, aquanaut, 104 days in space, 18 days on the Aquarius undersea habitat
Host: “Storm: A Planet Sculpted From Cosmic Violence,”
“The International Space Station is such a wonderful example of so many things: How we should be able to get along as international partners here on Earth too, to do peaceful, successful things. But, when I look at it — the science, the relationships, the maintenance, the way you live up there — it’s about ultimately improving life on Earth. What I liked about the way One Strange Rock put this story together, too, is that you see the beauty of the planet, you see the connectedness and you appreciate all of that. But, there is no hiding the chaos stuff, the violent things that went on to even make this planet possible.”
Leland Melvin — NASA astronaut, 565 hours in space
Host: “Awakening: Your Brain Is an Anomaly”
“We have so many people that are depending on the government to fund these things and get this data so that we can make an assessment on climate change. But if you get people looking up and thinking about how they could make an impact, we have so much ability to do citizen science. Once we make people fall back in love with the planet, then maybe they will find solutions to some of the problems themselves — without the government’s intervention.”
Jerry Linenger – NASA Astronaut, over 50 million miles in space, survived the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft
“This series is a bunch of threads and they make a fabric. That’s what this series does. It reminds me of my astronaut training days, because I’d sit there with someone from Italy and they’re the expert on particle physics and they have a day of my time to try to make me passionate about it so that I could conduct their experiment to their level that they want. And the next day I’m with the guy talking geology. And the next day I’m with someone else. Every day I’ve got someone else teaching me something else — and they all have passion for it. That’s what this show did. It brought together people with a lot of passion, so you watch the film and you have passion about these things, too.”
Mike Massimino — NASA astronaut, 572 hours in space, sent first tweet from space
Host: “Terraform: Earth’s Great Paradox”
“My tweet was something like, ‘Launch was awesome. Enjoyed the view. Feeling great. The adventure of a lifetime has begun.’ But the thing is, they made fun of me on Saturday Night Live. They said, ‘In 40 years, we’ve gone from “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” to “Launch was awesome!”’ So that happens on a Saturday. On Monday I get an email from my kids: ‘Dad! They made fun of you on Saturday Night Live! All the kids at school thought it was great. Keep saying stupid stuff!’ And that’s the story of the first tweet from space.”
One Strange Rock premieres Monday, March 26 at 10/9c on National Geographic