They cover David Bowie songs. They snap selfies. And on Friday, astronauts on the International Space Station will take over the National Geographic Channel for “Live From Space,” a live two-hour broadcast hosted here on Earth by Soledad O’Brien. The program will take viewers – who can interact with the astronauts during the show via Twitter – inside the ISS as it orbits the Earth one and one-third times while two of its residents, Rick Mastracchio of the U.S. and Koichi Wakata of Japan, show off some of the work being done in their laboratory 250 miles above the planet.
“This is allowing us to communicate what we’re doing with science and utilizing technologies that cannot only benefit us on Earth but are going to allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit for extended periods of time,” says Dylan Mathis, a spokesman for the International Space Station Program.
The broadcast functions as a reminder of what NASA has been up to since retiring the space shuttle in the summer of 2011.
“NASA is very much still in business,” Mathis says, adding there has been a nonstop human presence in space for the last 13 years. “You may not see it, but it's there, 24/7/365. It’s not smoke and fire like the launch of a rocket. It’s almost like a long-distance race in comparison to a sprint.”
NASA has also faced the constraints of its $17.6 billion budget – less than half of one percent of the national budget – amid debates of federal budget cuts and fiscal conservatism. President Barack Obama's latest budget request only shrinks the budget only by 1 percent, and even includes increases for some programs like commercial spaceflight, but also slashes NASA's education budget by nearly one-quarter.
According to former astronaut Sandy Magnus, now the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the government-funded space program continues to lead the charge in doing the long-term research that private companies often are not willing to invest in, and it develops the technologies that can be then adopted by earthly industries. The work done on the ISS that will be explored in “Live From Space” is an important aspect of that, she says.
“It’s important that NASA do things like this because [NASA] is funded by the taxpayer and part of that mission is to let taxpayers know what we’re doing with their money,” Magnus says. “Space stations are a little bit more remote [than shuttle launches] and it’s harder for people to relate to it because it is just up there going around and around and around,” she says.
“Live From Space” comes as attention toward space exploration has surged, from the Oscar-winning, blockbuster film “Gravity” to the reboot of the beloved science series “Cosmos,” which is also being broadcast on National Geographic along with Fox.
“It’s not really a revival of interest. The interest is always out there," Magnus says. "It’s providing a vehicle by which people express their innate interest in the space program.”
This is not the first time the ISS has taken over the TV airwaves. It has been featured on the Discovery Channel and ISS astronauts have livestreamed into various other programs.
“This is more of us being able to tell our story rather than it being making television history, so to speak,” Mathis says.
NASA had been considering the idea of a live television broadcast for many months, but started working in earnest with Nat Geo and its British partner (a version of “Live From Space” will also air on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4) last May.
“The International Space Station is a very busy place, and there’s a lot going on all the time,” Mathis says. “It took continual communication to make sure that our goals meshed."
Nat Geo gained NASA’s trust “through months of listening to them very carefully and being very respectful limitations that they put on us,” says “Live From Space” executive producer Al Berman, who – in addition to producing live events like the 1998 Nagano Olympics and reality shows such as “The Apprentice” -- has overseen TV coverage of several live space shuttle launches.
For instance, something seemingly as simple as placing a wireless camera on the floor of master control was “a very big deal for them," Berman says, with considerations ranged from finding optimal frequency to security issues. "That probably took a couple months to work out with experts."
In addition to the live event, the program will include pre-produced segments looking at various aspects of the space program, from how food is packaged to be sent up to the station to preparing the protocol for a "Gravity”-esque emergency. The ISS even shot special footage for Nat Geo of Mastracchio’s and his fellow astronaut’s six-hour emergency spacewalk on Christmas Eve to fix a faulty cooling pump.
“When we do live television, we compare ourselves in some measure to a rocket launch. We’re live. The consequences of when something goes on are pretty severe. There’s backups to the backups,” Berman says. “But when we say, 'oops,' that’s a technical problem; when they say, 'oops,' it could be deadly. And so just being around them and seeing how much more thorough and careful they are about every detail than we are by nature – and we think we’re careful – has been a real learning experience.”
By: Tierney Sneed
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