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, nations are aiming for the stars again—and trying to sell people on the expense. 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.”
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