Archival Video: Underwater Space Odyssey : The Picture Show Vintage NASA footage shows the ethereal experience of training for zero gravity in a giant pool.
NPR logo Archival Video: Underwater Space Odyssey

Archival Video: Underwater Space Odyssey

One of the best things about vintage films is that they provide a fixed medium for old promises about the future. Probably nowhere is this more entertaining than in the area of space exploration.

Moon landings, once the unapproachable superlative of what was possible in a future world, stepped into antiquity years ago, and now the space shuttle program is retiring. What do we have and what do we not have? What have we accomplished and what remains?

In the 1970s, NASA produced a series of short magazine-style films now in the collection at the National Archives. There's a lot of great material there, including this remarkable episode from 1976 on Enterprise, the non-orbiting first research space shuttle.

I'll leave thoughts on the science and technology to people who know what they're talking about, but I love watching Learning to Build in Space for other aspects: the rare beauty of a 150,000-gallon tank of water where spacesuit-wearing figures float in the simulated weightless environment. It's a perfectly balanced state, equal parts ethereal, graceful, clunky and absurd.

To this footage, which we've edited, we also added some ambient music, courtesy of musician Nicholas Szczepanik. It could be shown in its original form, but instead, here's more of an immersive experience, as it were:

We may not have had a fully functioning space colony by the year 2000, as promised in another video from this collection, but I have to admire the optimism expressed toward its realization, a realization that would be made possible because of the clever idea to mine building materials from the moon — it's that much closer.

While we're waiting for — or working to build — our space colonies, jet packs, flying cars and the rest, here's hoping we can do as good a job as possible of living in the present, here on Earth. My thanks to Lisa Hartjens for introducing me to NASA's ASR series.

Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.