The story of Sergei Krikalev, Soviet cosmonaut, has always touched me. This is the guy who got stranded up on Mir, the now- burned- up- in- reentry space station the Russians kept going for so long, when the Soviet Union disappeared in the summer of 1991. It always made me think of Laika, the pooch the Russians threw up into orbit back in the 60s, as an experiment, the pooch they had no plans to bring back down, whose plight haunted the little Swedish kid in My Life as a Dog. Krikalev’s story was like some weird little piece of metaphysical science fiction, the kind that’s always written by Russians and badly translated into English. How appropriately ironic is Krikalev? I thought, symbolic of an entire nation’s — an entire system of government’s — demise. I mean, the poor guy: He’s like the last kid waiting to be picked up after soccer practice, and Dad never shows up.
The truth, it turns out, is more prosaic than my romantic imaginings of a spacebound Robinson Crusoe, as Out of the Present explains. A meditative documentary by Andrei Ujica, it juxtaposes the banality of everyday life in an extraordinary place — Mir — with the extraordinary events taking place at home below. And with just a bit of voiceover commentary from Krikalev himself, as well as his crewmates on Mir, the film leaves the interpretation of it all to the viewer. What we’re left with is this: Even something as spectacular as the collapse of a superpower is — when viewed on the grand scale of life, the universe, and everything — pretty silly and fairly petty.
Almost exactly a decade ago — on May 20, 1991 — Krikalev arrived on Mir for a 5-month tour of duty as a flight engineer… and considering the ramshackle shape of the outpost, his services were in high demand. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such detailed video of the interior of Mir before — it’s all stuff the cosmonauts shot, some serious footage, some fooling around with the camcorder — and boy, what a mess. With exposed wires on every surface and ducts snaking through bulkheads, just junk everywhere, Mir could hardly be called anything other than a contraption, one that needed constant jerry-rigging to remain inhabitable. That was Krikalev’s job. And that’s why he got stuck in orbit.
While Krikalev and his crewmates are talking with family back in Russia and chatting, for fun, with ham radio operators all over the planet, tanks are rolling through Moscow in August 1991. The amazing footage from Mir — of the station and of Earth rolling by below — is almost outdone by the shaky amateur video of the chaos in Moscow, of army vehicles on fire and angry Muscovites making obscene gestures at soldiers. While Krikalev and his shipmates goof around with cans of Coke adapted for zero gravity — squirt tops do the trick — their launch site in Baykonur ceases to find itself situated in the Soviet Union and suddenly exists within the sovereign nation of Kazakhstan. So when Mir’s replacement crew is sent up in the fall of 91, Krikalev’s relief is bumped from the flight, for purely kiss-ass political reasons, in favor of a Kazakh researcher. Mir needs its handyman, so Krikalev finds himself signed up for another 5 months, and into the record books for zero-g endurance. By the time he finally returned to Earth in March 1992, he had spent more time in space than anyone else.
For some reason I’d always envisioned Krikalev up there alone, a lonely guy circling the planet with nothing to keep him company but the voices of his ham-radio pals. The reality may seem less romantic, but it’s actually far more encouraging of the human spirit. As mission control, post coup, relates to the guys on Mir the details of their new control room, with its dramatically different map of what used to be the Soviet Union, the cosmonauts look down from orbit and see that nothing has changed at all. No borders mar the rusty deserts or the sapphire oceans, and when the sun rises dramatically over the rim of the planet, it’s rising on everyone without regard to imaginary lines of demarcation.
And then you pop in the DVD of the IMAX film The Dream Is Alive, and the contrast between the crude functionality of the Soviet Union’s space program and the shiny happiness of NASA’s is startling. To this day, the Russians are still bringing their people crashing, literally, back to Earth in bell-shaped capsules with only a parachute to break their fall into the middle of some godawful wasteland, and NASA’s guys are making nice, soft touchdowns on runways in the middle of a wildlife refuge in Florida. We realize you have a choice when heading to orbit, you can imagine the flight attendant intoning, and we’d like to thank you for flying NASA Air.
Fly we do. The gorgeous footage of the Earth from space is nothing short of breathtaking. Of course, the images can’t help but be diminished from their original theatrical presentation — no home system can approach the majesty of an IMAX screen — but the film does at least fill the screen on a standard TV, since IMAX is a square format. (And the SurroundSound is truly awesome — the shuttle launches will rattle the house if you turn it up high enough.) Watching astronauts, in their clean white spacesuits, floating around outside the shuttle with the blue-white Earth behind will send chills down your spine. It’s calculated to — the vicarious thrills are the return on American tax dollars.
The Dream Is Alive is NASA propaganda, no question, and a 36-minute commercial for NASA contractor Lockheed, but the gung- ho- for- America attitude seems less obnoxious than quaint today, 21 years after Dream debuted on IMAX screens, and a little sad. Shot just before the Challenger disaster, before the shuttle program got scaled back, before we’d gotten a dramatic reminder that getting off this rock isn’t like taking the red-eye to the coast, the regal elegance of the view from orbit and the confident pronouncements of narrator Walter Cronkite are more bittersweet than anything else. The universe turns out not to be within the easy reach we were promised it was. At least two astronauts onscreen in Dream — Judy Resnick and Dick Scobee — were soon after killed on Challenger. The Solar Max mission we see another team train for — during which two astronauts, for the first time ever, repaired a satellite in orbit — was also helping to create space-based construction procedures for use in building the International Space Station… and we all know how well that project has been going. The Dream Is Alive came along only four years after the first shuttle launch — but two decades later, astronauts are little more than truck drivers delivering satellites to orbit, doing a job that’s done just as well by unmanned rockets, and not doing, for the most part, the kinds of jobs humans are really needed for, like exploration. The dream is alive, but it’s still mostly just a dream.
Cronkite’s final declaration of the film is this: “Now that we know how to live and work in space, we stand at the threshold of a new age of discovery.” Maybe it seemed that way in 1985. But we’ve really only learned how to visit space for a short time, not live there. When the shuttle passes over the boot of Italy and Cronkite notes that on the left is the city of Genoa, home of Christopher Columbus, one can’t help but get misty-eyed at how far our adventurous spirits have taken us… and how far we’ve yet to go. Imagine if Columbus had done nothing but stand on the shores of Europe and splash his feet in the Atlantic.