There was a moment as I was looking down, as the calming blue and swirling white of planet Earth slowly lit up the darkness beneath me, filling up my bottomless view that I realized I had to stop my eyes from welling up or I’d ruin my Quest 2’s lenses. I’d read about moments like these from famed astronauts like Apollo 14’s Edgar D. Mitchell — epiphanic moments where the majesty of our homeworld and its tiny place within the cosmos smacks you dumb with awe and steals away your speech. This is the impact of episode one of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, the latest virtual reality series from immersive filmmaking pioneers Felix and Paul Studios, which was shot over two years on the International Space Station.
You may know studio founders Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael from The People’s House, their 2017 virtual reality tour of the White House, hosted by former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. And soon, you’ll hear of them again for their work in the augmented reality space with The Jim Henson Company.
But right now, their focus is on space and the four-part series chronicling the lives of NASA astronauts aboard the ISS who are preparing humanity for our eventual lives outside of this planet.
The series, which the duo developed in partnership with Time Studios, is a labor of love that Raphael says dates back to a childhood obsession with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the very inception of his studio in 2013, when he and partner Lajeunesse, then unproven in the VR space, first broached the idea with NASA.
“The first thing we talked about was putting a camera on the ISS,” says Raphael. “But we realized that would take a while and we first needed to gain NASA’s trust and learn to work with them. And that’s why we did Space Explorers, the first two episodes that were launched in 2018, which were shot on Earth.”
NASA is no stranger to VR, but the space agency’s efforts with the medium have tended to be more on the training side as an educational tool, and less as a means of extending space’s reach to the public. So it wasn’t a given that the agency would agree to what Raphael calls “the most ambitious media project of any kind to be shot in space.” Eventually, however, NASA grew confident enough in the burgeoning immersive studio’s abilities and varied output to move forward with Felix and Paul’s seemingly impossible ask of filming aboard the ISS.
“I think that they understood … that if this could actually work, it would be a complete game changer in terms of being able to tell the story, being able to make people experience what it is actually like to be in space,” says Raphael.
That’s not hyperbole, either. Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, one of the four astronauts featured in the series alongside NASA’s Anne McClain, Christina Koch, and Nick Hague, recently had a chance to view The ISS Experience and told Lajeunesse during a lengthy conversation that he was “stunned” by it. It’s a sentiment Raphael says was echoed by other astronauts who’ve previously been to the ISS and have seen the series.
“When we first showed the first few images of The ISS Experience to astronauts back here on Earth who had been on the ISS, they were like, ‘Well, this is the first time we can actually share what that is like.’”
So what is it like? Three words immediately spring to mind: disorienting, frightening, and inspiring. It’s one thing to be aware of humans living aboard a rapidly spinning collection of metal somewhere out in space, and it’s quite another to find yourself within the antiseptic, claustrophobic, and electronically cluttered microgravity environs of the blindingly white International Space Station. To call these women and men brave is to undersell their strength of character. This is a hero’s journey where unpredictable dangers and the readiness to combat them lurk behind every passing moment.
So what is it like? Three words immediately spring to mind: disorienting, frightening, and inspiring.
In fact, there’s a scene during the first 24-minute episode where we see astronaut Nick Hague, who at the time is strapped sideways into a very intense-looking treadmill, react in realtime to an ominous alarm. It’s a moment that grounds the series which, apart from this one instance of unscripted terror, mostly traffics in hopeful overtones that humanize the astronauts, like a particularly endearing scene of the astronauts sharing a meal and doing microgravity tricks with their tubes of “food.”
To film the series, Felix and Paul Studios had to first address the practical issues of filming in space, both “indoors” within the ISS and outside of its hulls in the unforgiving conditions of that ever-expanding cosmic soup. The studio had to not only develop cameras that could withstand variations in temperature, vibration, and radiation, as well as debris impact, and contamination, but it also had to overcome the many hurdles involved in certifying a spaceborne device with the FCC.
“When you’re space certifying, even for inside the ISS, you need to make sure that certain adhesives aren’t used. You need to make sure of how you manage thermals because air flow and gravity just… wreak havoc on electronic devices’ thermals compared to here on Earth. [We had to] make sure that we’re not interfering with any devices up there,” Raphael explains.
That space certification process could run for up to a year. So to speed things up, Raphael and partner Lajeunesse opted to not use one of their own custom VR camera rigs and instead decided to modify an existing one: a Z-Cam V1 Pro.
This “Space Camera,” which incorporates nine 4K sensors to create a three-dimensional, 8K 360-degree image and was co-developed with Nanoracks, a commercial provider of low-Earth orbit access, will be used for a very special purpose: to film the first-ever VR spacewalk or EVA (extravehicular activity). And it was just recently launched into space to gather that footage for what will be the fourth and final installment of The ISS Experience.
Apart from the immense technical challenges involved in creating equipment that could endure space’s harsh conditions, the studio had to also overcome a series of very necessary bureaucratic red tape to get a green light on its planned production. According to Raphael, this involved spending “a lot of time in an ISS simulator, in VR actually, to plan out the shots,” as well as getting approval from NASA to ensure the filming wouldn’t interfere with the astronauts’ actual ISS work, nor pose a danger to their safety.
“We were often on calls with about I’d say over 30 people from NASA just to validate a camera position. It was quite impressive to see what it took and that they actually went through with it. It was like, ‘Really? This is happening?! They’re really putting all this effort behind this?’ And I think it’s a testament to the faith they had in the project that they went through with it,” he says.
Though it may sound like the minutiae of the production posed several headaches for all parties involved (and it certainly did), to hear Raphael tell it, the astronauts themselves “had a blast doing it,” seeing as how they were the ones to do most of the filming. In fact, the astronauts were “encouraged to use the cameras themselves” when the studio wasn’t actively directing shots. The fruits of this “amateur” filmmaking can be seen in the astronaut logs, the scenes where each of the ISS’ residents appear solo in front of the camera to sound off on their lives in low-Earth orbit.
“Every step of the way, things kept going forward because people were actually enjoying the process and were excited about what was happening,” says Raphael.
Since the studio’s been filming aboard the ISS since 2018, it’s amassed over 200 hours of footage, including Space X’s first successful commercial flight which saw NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley dock at the ISS via the Crew Dragon. That momentous event will also be featured in an upcoming episode of The ISS Experience.
As for what comes next for Felix and Paul’s space ambitions after The ISS Experience, well, Raphael says “it’ll be sad for it to end there.” The studio plans to leave its equipment aboard the station and leverage its extensive technical know-how and NASA-adjacent relationships for multiple uses going forward, one of which Raphael suggestively teased could very well involve the red planet.
“Beyond the ISS, well, space doesn’t end at the ISS.”
“You know, just plopping this camera somewhere, you then have a virtual cameraman there that can point in any direction and do beautiful cinematography from down here on earth while a single astronaut does what they’re doing … without anyone having to handle a camera, right? So I think this could be great for other content creators,” Raphael says.
“This could be great for anyone looking for educational or training content. We’re even talking about using some of the tech we developed to be part of the eyes of just being up there. They have cameras for situational awareness, for operations, and I think the technology can be useful there. Beyond the ISS, well, space doesn’t end at the ISS. So we’re definitely looking at the next steps.”
Earth to Elon Musk. Mars (and Felix and Paul) are calling.
Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is available to experience now in VR on Facebook’s Oculus Store for PC-connected Rift and Rift S headsets, as well as the standalone Quest and Quest 2 headsets. It will also be available to view in 360-degree format on 5G devices through South Korea’s LGU+, Japan’s KDDI, and China Telecom.