To mere mortals, the prospect of joining astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may seem like nothing more than a pipe dream — until now.
“Space Explorers: The Infinite,” now running at Richmond’s Craneway Pavilion, allows visitors to experience, through virtual reality (VR), what it’s like to float aboard the weightless realm of the ISS — a spaceship the size of a football field located 227 nautical miles above Earth and hurtling along at the astonishing speed of 17,500 mph.
Through the magic of VR technology, the highly interactive exhibit puts visitors right alongside ISS astronauts from various participating countries who’ve been videotaped in 3-D specifically for the “experience.” It also lets visitors wander outside the space station for a firsthand peek at Earth from space (“Hey look, isn’t that the boot of Italy?”).
After a brief orientation, “VR-nauts” are outfitted with an Oculus VR headset. Fitting over the top of each user’s head, a lens in front covers the eyes, and headphones drop down over the ears. Once strapped in, the senses of sight and sound are taken in exclusively through the Oculus headset, which can take some getting used to.
Once in VR mode, everyone else taking in the experience becomes an avatar — a very slimming look that, from the perspective of the headset user, turns participants on the exhibit floor into sparkly V-shaped aliens with no discernible facial features. But in a good way.
Fellow members of the brave group one enters in with are each identified with a gold dot. Other visitors have blue dots, staff are green, and the walls, which tend to get bumped into, come up as red to warn participants to turn around.
Touch on a larger gold-ringed orb, and one of 70 3-D videos envelopes the visitor for firsthand, prerecorded astronaut activities such as inspecting equipment, floating outside the ISS and tossing freshly sliced apples to each other. Because they’re shot in 3-D, the videos put participants right in the mix of things, except for the weightlessness aspect — VR can only do so much.
The astronauts also speak directly to the camera, offering up their own personal takes on what it’s like to be aboard the mothership of all motherships. Spaceman Andrew Morgan describes it as a “spiritual experience.”
Second-time visitor Martha Tuscher, of Oakland, said her 45-minute jaunt through the cosmos was the “the most peaceful I’ve ever felt. It was just so wonderful to be back here the second time and still feel that peace of just looking and nothing else.”
As the experience winds down participants are told to “follow the light” to the final phase of their time in outer-space, a meaningful experience for Jane McDonagh, of San Anselmo.
“I kept feeling like I had died and I was following the light. They say when you die you have a guide. It was very clear where I was supposed to go,” says McDonagh, who was quick to point out she wasn’t disturbed by interpreting the instruction the way she did.
McDonagh also noticed that looking down on the world “makes you feel small. Like our problems are so minute. We-are-just-a-speck-in-the-universe kind of thing.”
Because traipsing through outer space is not an everyday experience for most, staff are trained to be on the lookout for anyone who may be having a “bad trip.” An example given was a deaf woman who before entering did not tell staff she was hearing-impaired or that her husband needed a wheelchair.
When Rita Morrish, the on-site manager for Montreal-based exhibit producer PHI Studio, became aware of the issue, she rescheduled the woman and her husband, arranging for the videos to have closed captions as well as a wheelchair for the husband. Morrish said that when the woman and her husband emerged from the exhibit the second time she was in tears.
“She said to me, ‘it was so beautiful,’ ” says Morrish. “This was something that even she could enjoy. It’s pretty awesome.”
Another visitor from China came out of the exhibit with her daughter, also both crying. It turned out the experience was the first time in years “since she was a little girl that they held hands,” says Morrish.
One twosome even got a little frisky in space.
“We did have a couple who were having a romantic moment. You’ve seen the Oculuses — imagine two people kissing each other and their Oculuses kept smashing together. It was sweet,” says Morrish.
Ultimately, how one experiences the “experience” is up to the individual, says Morrish.
“They can define it for themselves. What’s presented here is this exploratory exhibition that provides information,” she says, but also an opportunity to let go and see the “universe as it is without all of the noise and distraction.”
“Space Explorers: The Infinite” runs through April 9 in the Craneway Pavilion at 1414 Harbour Way South on the Richmond waterfront. Tickets are available online at theinfiniteexperience.com and at the door.
Paul Kilduff is a San Francisco-based writer who also draws cartoons. He can be reached at email@example.com.