April 12th 1961 – Yuri Gagarin is about to see what no other person has seen in the history of humanity – the Earth from space. In the next 108 minutes he’ll see more than most people do in a lifetime. What sights awaited the first cosmonaut silently gliding over the world below? What was it like to view the oceans and continents sailing by from such a height?
In a unique collaboration with the European Space Agency, and the Expedition 26/27 crew of the International Space Station, we have created a new film of what Gagarin first witnessed fifty years ago.
By matching the orbital path of the Space Station, as closely as possible, to that of Gagarin’s Vostok 1spaceship and filming the same vistas of the Earth through the new giant cupola window, astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and documentary film maker Christopher Riley, have captured a new digital high definition view of the Earth below, half a century after Gagarin first witnessed it.
Director Christopher Riley shares his fascination with the cosmos:
It sounds like it was a monumental challenge to make First Orbit.
After working out the mathematical jigsaw of when to film, and fitting that into the [space station] crew’s schedule, the second headache was trying to unravel the footage. This was partly due to the weightlessness Paolo experienced when filming––when you watch it grounded in the convention of gravity, it’s very confusing. We pieced it together using Google Maps to spot coastlines.
What is the purpose of the International Space Station?
To look for a practical purpose in the Space Station is to miss the point—it’s like asking what music or painting is for. The thing that defines us as human beings is that we can do these activities. It does cost a lot of money, but it is priceless in that it has united something like 50 countries in the most technologically sophisticated engineering projects in human history. This is the equivalent to the pyramids. This is our first UNESCO site off Earth, if you like. Some of these countries were fighting each other 50 or 60 years ago. And now they are united in a peaceful endeavor of acquiring knowledge—and what can be better than that?
With In the Shadow of the Moon you explored the American expeditions to the moon from 1968-1972. Why has no one been back since?
You have to remember why we went to the moon. It was perceived by Americans as a race, it was about ideological supremacy. This was the generation where science fiction drove science fact and nothing seemed impossible. But we made it happen, and because of more pressing financial needs we wound it down. We could not go to the moon if we wanted to do it now. Even if we had the will, we do not have the brainpower or the technology—we would have to reinvent it all for a digital world.
Where does your interest in outer space come from?
I was born after Gagarin’s flight, but I grew up in the heady days of the 60s and 70s when we were routinely going into space, flying to the moon and landing robots on Mars. My personal take is that this is one of the things that humans do that is of galactic significance.