Christopher Riley: First Orbit

The Cosmic-Minded Director Pays Homage to Yuri Gagarin, the First Man in Space

Today’s short retraces the monumental journey made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who 50 years ago tomorrow became the first man in space. To celebrate the pioneer’s round-the-world tour aboard the Vostok 1, director Christopher Riley has recreated Gagarin’s voyage for his 108-minute film First Orbit. Riley worked with the European Space Agency and the International Space Station to calculate the exact times that the station’s orbital path lined up with the Vostok’s original route, which started from the launch site in Kazakhstan, and took in the Pacific Ocean night sky past Chile and the South Atlantic into sunrise, before finally heading north-eastwards over Africa and ending with a parachute landing in Saratov, Russia. Astronaut Paolo Nespoli filmed the majority of the high-definition footage, which is woven together with historic recordings of Gagarin and an original score by composer Philip Sheppard. Today’s NOWNESS preview was made exclusively for POST magazine’s second issue, POST Gravity, an outer-space-themed special; the full film will be released worldwide tomorrow via a global streaming on YouTube. NOWNESS spoke to Riley, who was also behind the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, about 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.

For an inside look at Russia's restricted access space training facility, click here.

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