I’m in Israel this week for a tour of Ben-Gurion University (more good stuff to come, so stay tuned to this blog). Unfortunately, that means I’ll be missing tonight’s two-hour “Battlestar Galactica” finale. Frak! (No spoilers in the comments section, please.)
Astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jew to live aboard the International Space Station, was a fan of the original 1970s “BSG” and selected the reimagined series as one of the four television programs he could watch during his three-month mission in 2008. And if the editors smile kindly on Reisman tonight, he might just end up in the “Galactica” finale, playing a Colonial Marine (who gets killed within 10 seconds of being shown on camera). If he doesn’t make the cut, maybe he’ll end up in the deleted scenes on the DVD.
The coolest opportunity ever to watch “Battlestar Galactica” has to be watching the show while orbiting the planet called Earth.
There was some downside to watching the show in space, however. First, after seeing battlestars equipped with faster-than-light drives and bristling with laser cannon you can’t help but feel your space station is kind of lame. Second, after a few episodes you start getting the sneaking feeling that at least one of your crewmates is really a Cylon.
Still, there was nothing like watching “BSG” while floating along in zero gravity. First I’d go through the modules turning off all the lights that I could. There would still be a few blinking lights and LEDs on the comm panels and the other equipment, and when the window shutter was open occasionally the earthshine would light up the room with a faint blue glow.
Then I’d float up to the laptop, which we used to watch the show. Holding on gently with my thumb and index finger I’d lose myself in the drama of the struggles of the humans and the Cylons. Surrounded by the sounds of the space station, the humming of the pumps, the whirring of the fans and the clicking of the valves it was easy to blur the line between science fiction and science fact.
I am a fan of science fiction in general and have fond memories of the original “Battlestar Galactica,” having watched it as a kid. But the main thing that appeals to me about the new “BSG” is the way contemporary issues are portrayed as an allegory, with ambiguity and complexity. Issues are not presented in black and white with clear answers; rather, the intention of “BSG” is often to intentionally make the viewer uncomfortable and challenge their assumptions. As an engineer and scientist who strives for objectivity I find that refreshing.
So I kept watching the show throughout my training and my time in space. Watching from Star City, Russia, during training for my mission had also been otherworldly. Star City is a Russian air force base outside Moscow where every cosmonaut, starting with Yuri Gagarin, has trained to fly in space. During the Cold War, the very existence of Star City was a closely guarded secret.
Things have improved recently, but when my commander, Peggy Whitson, and I were there the years of neglect after the collapse of the Soviet Union were evident. The buildings were showing their age. After a long day of training, it was easy to get immersed in “BSG” since the grit and stark functionality of the halls of Star City were so similar to the halls of Galactica. The phones there still had cords, too, like the phones on Galactica.
Later, when Peggy and I were in space together, we had a video conference with Ron Moore and David Eick, the producers of the show. They talked to us about coming full circle since Ron and David were drawn to science fiction by the drama of human spaceflight.
I also told them of one thing that I found very strange about the show for the first time after viewing it from space: It struck me as just wrong that all the characters were walking around the ship like there was still gravity up there. Floating is one of the most pleasurable and fantastic experiences of spaceflight and I cannot believe that any spacefaring people would deny themselves that joy. They explained that it would cost almost as much to simulate zero-gravity on a TV show as it would to go into space for real.
When I got back to Earth, Ron was kind enough to invite me up to Vancouver to visit the set. As my visit approached I was cautioned that there would be some limited nudity on the set that day. I replied that I was perfectly fine with that as long as Dean Stockwell was not involved.
Meeting members of the cast and crew was fantastic and it became immediately clear that the “BSG” team was as closely knit as the team of astronauts and cosmonauts that I had the pleasure of working with in space.
But the coolest part was getting to be a Colonial Marine.
I can’t tell you about the story arc of my character or the complex development of his psyche because—spoiler alert—I get blown to bits about 10 seconds after first appearing onscreen, (but not before one of the other Marines vomits all over me). It was some of the most fun I had ever had!
I was having so much fun I stayed on the set until 1 a.m. This was a bit of a problem since I had a 6 a.m. flight out of Seattle. I drove through the night and went straight to the airport. About 24 hours later, after two flight connections, I found myself in a bar in New York City.