June 5, 2008
State of Weightlessness, 1994
Filmed after the dismantling of the Soviet Union at a time when the U.S. space station project (then called Freedom) that had been championed by Ronald Reagan was similarly facing its own crisis of survival after a series of deep budget cuts (partly in response to shifting political considerations and administrations), Maciej Drygas's The State of Weightlessness is a clear-eyed, thoughtful, and articulate survey of the human cost of the Cold War-fueled space race, and the moral vacuum left in the wake of geopolitical upheaval. Incisively opening to the recorded audio transmission between an unseen cosmonaut (perhaps aboard the Mir space station) and ground control as he positions the microphone near areas around his heart in an attempt to amplify his heartbeat for the remote listener, the cosmonaut's long distance health checkup also becomes a metaphor for Drygas's examination on the current state of a people's disoriented collective consciousness as Russia dramatically transformed from communist state to federal republic. Framed as a candid discussion on the exhilaration, difficulties, adaptations, and dangers inherent in manned spaceflight (and in particular, the long duration mission tours of duty necessitated by the launching of the Salyut, then Mir space stations) with a diverse cross-section of participants from the Soviet space program - cosmonauts, scientists, physicians, surviving family members, and medical experiment participants - the film also reveals the moral consequences inherent in the politically motivated pursuit of technology.
In one interview, flight engineer Georgi Grechko (the first person to conduct a spacewalk outside an orbiter) reflects on his adventurous spirit colliding with the realization of his own mortality following a near-death experience during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere - an incident that invokes the specter of Soviet hero, Vladimir Komarov, whose death from a failed parachute deployment during landing would come to symbolize the human toll exacted in the noble (and politically mandated) pursuit of space exploration. A similar spectacle is forged in the aftermath of the Soyuz 11 crew's ill-fated homecoming - the elation over the first successful mission to the Salyut space station upended by the discovery of the crew's accidental exposure to the vacuum of space during undocking and separation. In each case, the propaganda value of a hero's welcome would be transfigured into an equally potent rallying cry for perseverance and solidarity with the national space program, capitalizing on a public outpouring of grief and sympathy. In another interview, Mir cosmonaut Aleksandr Laveykin expresses his disagreement with pioneering rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's comment that human destiny lies beyond Earth's gravity, remarking that humanity will always harbor an inviolable emotional connection with the idea of home and will always strive to return, a sentiment that is similarly expressed by veteran cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov (who has logged more than 670 days in space during two Mir missions) who describes his own thoughts during landing as those disconnected from fundamental questions of life and death (and history), and instead, were filled with the idea of savoring the simple gestures of being human - a glass of wine, a cigarette, his wife's embrace.
However, the toll of spaceflight is not only relegated to the memories of increasingly forgotten, conquering heroes, but also in the damaged lives of many anonymous, medical experiment participants like Yevgeni Kiriushin who was subjected to a research study that simulated the effects of long-duration weightlessness. Recounting bouts of depression, alcoholism, broken marriages, and other manifestations of psychological damage that continue to plague fellow research participants long after the end of the clinical studies, and punctuated by a visit to a colleague who sustained irreversible neurological damage, Kiriushin's testimony is a sobering reminder of the murky ethics, institutional cruelty, and callous indifference that underpins the myopic, zealous pursuit of these milestone achievements. Returning to images of a deserted, post-communist Baikonur Cosmodrome as a cosmonaut - unable to return home - listens to his wife's comments on the turbulent changes sweeping the country (and reassurance over his enviable distance from the sociopolitical maelstrom), the stark contrast reflects the moral question posed by all human endeavor - where conscience is a surrogate force of gravity - suspended between heaven and earth, humanity and history.