I have always been fascinated by the International Space Station. In fact, I have gone to https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ to sign myself up for text notifications when the ISS will be passing over our house. (You can, too!)
If the station’s flyby isn’t at some ungodly hour like 3 a.m., and if the entire Pacific Northwest sky isn’t blanketed in clouds as it so often is, Dear Husband and I make it a point to spot the station from the hot tub in our back yard. I always wave. As far as I know, no one has ever waved back. Still, it never gets old, and it makes me feel connected to something much bigger than myself.
Having said that, just imagine our excitement when we heard that The Infinite was coming to a city near us. This is an amazing virtual reality experience that allows you to virtually walk around inside the space station, explore all its nooks and crannies, and even walk through walls into the vacuum of space. You get to eavesdrop on the astronauts as they go about their daily routines, and you really get a sense of what life must be like up there.
My main takeaway is that I think the station needs to focus more on aesthetics, so that it isn’t such a psychological shock being there. I know it’s zero gravity, and that physical space is at a premium, but every floor, wall, and ceiling was covered with sharp edged, cold, clinical-looking instruments. There needs to be one module where things are warm and soft and comfortable. People need that every now and then. (I wanted to check out the sleeping quarters and the bathrooms, but had no luck finding them. There wasn’t time to see everything, but I suspect I’ll be back.)
When we arrived at the Tacoma Armory for the event, we were given VR headsets, and once we had them on and they were properly adjusted, an assistant came around to see who in our group of 8 were actually family or friends. To avoid bumping into others as you wandered around, you “saw” everyone else as human-shaped, star-filled avatars. Strangers had a glowing blue star in their chest. Friends had golden stars. Facilitators had green stars. If, while wandering the station, you came anywhere close to a real life obstruction, it was covered in bright red lines. I’m proud to say I didn’t bump into anything or anyone during my visit. (A little girl did bump into me once, but no one was hurt.)
At one point I was standing inside a capsule and a ball came whizzing past my head. What the…? I turned, and there was an astronaut catching the ball. He then threw it toward me again, and I spun around to see another astronaut catching it. All the while, they were discussing their work on the station. Even though I knew this was virtual reality, and that a foam ball in zero gravity couldn’t hurt me even if I were truly there, I couldn’t help but duck each time it flew/floated by me.
I had an unexpected intermission when a facilitator approached me and said that the battery on my headset was running low, so they’d have to trade it out for another one. I took off my headset and came crashing back to reality. I was standing in a huge empty room, and oddly enough, its walls were covered with murals of palm trees. (I wish I had thought to snap a picture.) There were dozens of people wearing headsets who were slowly walking around me, obviously interacting with things I could not see. It was rather surreal. I was happy to get another headset on and return to space.
At one point I walked through a (virtual) wall and enjoyed viewing the station from the outside, and also had fun looking down at earth, both in daylight and darkness, from 200 miles above. And then, the next thing I knew, the station left without me! That gave me more time to focus on the universe surrounding me, but still, I wanted to say, “Hey! Wait for me!”
It came back, though, just in time to allow us all to participate in a mission. We were going to do a space walk to observe the astronauts as they made a few repairs. I got to sit there, with nothing but stars beneath my feet, and watch and listen to their communications. I really felt like I was right there with them. If one of them had said, “Here, hold my wrench,” I’d have reached for it.
But of course one cannot spacewalk for days on end, and so the experience came to a close. We were asked to place our headsets on a conveyor belt so that they could be sanitized for the next lucky visitors.
And then we were treated to an unexpected bonus. (“But wait! There’s more!”) That bonus was in the form of an audiovisual art installation by the Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. Called “The Universe within the Universe”, it had us standing in a big circle, gazing into a mirror on the floor that reflected a projection of a very colorful, fast-moving, computer generated journey through his interpretation of everything from the micro universe to the macro universe, and back again. Still photos don’t do it justice, so here’s a short video we took of a tiny segment of the installation. ***If flashing lights cause you to have seizures, you may want to skip it.*** Otherwise, enjoy!
The Infinite is currently in Tacoma, Washington, and will remain there until about September. If you are anywhere close, you’ll really want to experience it. It’s out of this world. (See what I did there?)
If Tacoma is beyond your reach, you can go to the website and sign up to be notified of future tour dates. Keep an eye out in case it comes your way. It’s even better than watching the International Space Station fly overhead while you sit in a hot tub with someone you love (although that’s pretty cool, too).
If stuff like this existed when I was a kid, I’d have taken science more seriously. What amazing times we live in.
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