In March this year I was invited to be a moderator for a projects-in-development session at M:Brane festival in Malmö. I could not resist. A whole bunch of new AR, VR, traditional documentary and animation projects with the themes centered on science and young audiences. What’s not to love?
One of the projects being explored was a feature documentary about the Lucy Mission, currently in its final preparatory stages with NASA. The Spanish filmmakers, Alphonse de la Puente and Ruth Chao have huge access to the scientific team charged with preparing every detail for the launch of a probe this October that will shoot to the Trojan asteroids around Jupiter. The Trojans are the remnants of the earliest formation phases of our solar system, that are stuck in a Lagrange point with Jupiter. Think 4 billion years ago when dust swirled around the Sun: some of it congealed, in a way, and formed our planets, while some just… didn’t. The left over materials are the Trojans: pure, loose rock almost untouched since then. They are of great interest to scientists because closer examination could reveal more about how our solar system was formed, and maybe even how life started to evolve on Earth. I admit I had not heard of this mission and was immediately intrigued. Their enthusiasm for the project and the great characters I saw in the trailer made me think this could be an unusual film for astronomy lovers and even for audiences who are not. So I asked Ruth and Alphonse if they would have a chat.
Enjoy this edited transcript of our conversation from March 10, 2021.
Hussain Currimbhoy: So onto your fantastic project. I was like, how can I have not known about this amazing mission.
There is lots of talk right now because of the recent landing on Mars and even about making a submarine to visit Titan (Saturn’s Moon). But how did you hear about this mission and what drew you to this project when there are so many other big sexy ones out there?
Ruth Chao: It was just being in the right place at the right moment. We were filming another documentary in about asteroids. And then we get to know some of the members of the Lucy mission, Cathy Olkin, Hal Levison and so on. And we sent them our documentary when it was finished. After that they asked us if we would like to film a documentary following their job with the Lucy mission. We agreed with them some important points for them and for us. First, to show that the science is funny, its cool; that you can enjoy being a scientist. They are not such strange people. We want to demystify the cliche of the crazy, lonely scientists.
Alphonse de la Puente: Yeah. I mean, Hal has the big beard, which is part of the cliche.
RC: But he’s funny. He’s very friendly.
HC: Hal seems like a very passionate, lovely scientist.
RC: Yes. Another point was to show that you need a team to do such great things like this You cannot work alone. And the third one was to try to convince young women that if they want, they can be scientists. Two of our main characters are really powerful women. They dreamed of being scientists. These are our main goals. And the mission, what can I explain about the mission.
AD: Yeah, but the mission’s focus is on the Trojan asteroids, which are swarms that share an orbit with Jupiter. They are not well known. That’s the difference between the Titan Mission and its ‘submarine’. The submarine is just a proposal at this stage, only a concept. There is another mission to an asteroid, to the asteroid Psyche, a metallic asteroid in the Main Asteroid Belt. And maybe that’s the reason why you didn’t hear about Lucy before, because the target is very unknown.
RC: Not many in the public know about these swarms of asteroids sharing their gravity space with Jupiter.
AD: And in comparison with Perseverance, the Lucy mission is a flyby, like New Horizons over Pluto.
RC: It’s curious.
AD: It’s enigmatic. And people know about the name Pluto. When the first images of the Lucy mission arrive on Earth, I don’t know what will be the impact on the media. With Pluto, you have a flyby and as soon as the first picture came, it made headlines around the world.
HC: It’s like Pluto was Instagram ready.
RC: Yes, there was a heart, lost in the shadows the outskirts in the Solar System…
AD: We will get the first images of the first target in 2025. Th second and the third in 2027. Then 2028. So you have very little regular information and you are flying over not a very cinematic target.
HC: Yeah. It’s not terribly photogenic.
AD: Not as catchy as Pluto! But it is very interesting because they are trying to unveil the origins of the solar system.
HC: And space agencies prioritize such missions because they’re asking the question: where did life come from? Perseverance is trying to find microbes in the Mars soil to know if life spread may have from there. I mean, it doesn’t look as great as Pluto or Mars. But the questions raised are very profound. The Lucy mission is taking images of the rock on these asteroids to see what it is made of. Those rocks haven’t been affected as much as rocks that came close to the sun. Heat and pressure will change an asteroid’s features. But these asteroids are more pure. So you have an insight into the original state of the matter that formed our solar system, right?
RC: The Trojans are the most ancient objects in the solar system. They are fascinating.
AD: Maybe more fascinating than going to Pluto or going to Titan because in the beginning of the formation of the solar system, there was a primordial disc of dust that was spinning around the sun. And they were colliding and they were aggregating and becoming bigger. Some of them aggregated into planets. Some of the rocks didn’t aggregate at all and that’s what has happened with the Trojans million of years ago.They are like fossils that capture a snapshot of the formation of the solar system. That’s why they are so fascinating. And they are very different from what we find on Earth. They have formed in the outskirts of the solar system, but they don’t know why.
HC: Is it true that some of these asteroids sit on a slightly higher plane.
AD: Yeah, they are not like Saturn’s rings. As in, all in the same place. The Trojans are a little up and down because they are in the Lagrange points which are a point of gravitational stability. Due to the huge gravitational fields of Jupiter and all the planets on its balance. They are special points that, let’s say, if you throw something into that area of space, it will be stable forever. They are not going to move. They are going to be synchronized with the planet.
AD: I’m sure that as soon as the hype around the mission gets higher, it will grab peoples attention. Because as soon as people know that there are fossils that are pictures of the beginning of the solar system, they would say, oh, my God, how would this be possible 2 or 2.5 two billion years after the formation?
RC: The Trojans are in exactly the same status as they were in the beginning, because they weren’t corrupted.
HC: Exactly. They’re still pure. The Trojans haven’t been touched by other junk in the solar system. Some clues to the truth as to how this solar system came to be.
AD: And that’s just connected with the name. Which is something cool. The name of the mission, Lucy, is a reference to the Lucy hominid, which is the first ancestor of the human being.
RC: The same way Lucy, the skeleton, gave us a lot of clues about ourselves as humans. Lucy, this spacecraft, will give us a lot of clues about the origins of the solar system. It is a wonderful parallel with human evolution.
HC: It’s a great link. It’s a snapshot into our past. But also the Lucy link is also connected to music which I love. You have this great theme throughout the film about music, like the song ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and how much Hal is a music fan. I just love that element because you don’t really see that very often in science documentaries. And I just like how you brought that thread into this story. Because there is a certain poetry to trying to imagine these big concepts. It’s like music to me. And this group that you’re following is like a little band.
AD: It’s not that little. It’s huge, an orchestra. The mission has hundreds of people for five or six years thinking about this all day. And the budget has risen to 1 billion dollars.
HC: I mean, considering what they’re accomplishing for a billion dollars, it’s pretty incredible. And just to go back to a comment you made earlier, once you said once the public starts to understand this mission and they start to see how inspiring and incredible it is, I feel, it is then the pressure will start to build on the team.
The launch window is in October and it’s not very far away. And once this pressure starts to infiltrate the team, I’m wondering how you prepare to capture all of these potential events that will happen in various departments and egos, and in the technology. How are you preparing to capture this band having a small breakdown every day?
RC: So we have a team there that are prepared for whatever they do. For instance, in March they are going to test the solar panels. We can’t travel there. But we have a great DP there. You have to be ready for every important moment. But then to capture their daily lives, I mean, to get them when they are relaxed, sometimes we go to their houses because many are working at home now.
It’s a combination sometimes. For instance at Lockheed Martin, which is the company building the spacecraft, sometimes they work at home. But there are people that have to be present to work on this mission. So we film them at their homes talking with each other, or having conversations on Skype for example.
We shot some scenes in Senegal last year. Because in order to know the size of some of the asteroids, the scientists have to be in particular points on the Earth to see when an asteroid passes in front of a star. So in different moments of the mission that are important for them, we are there.
And, of course, the launch is the most important moment for them because it is super tense. So we want to fly with them to Florida before the launch. And then wait with them every day until we get the green light and see what happens.
HC: So you have access to all of this, to Lockheed Martin and access to all of these people’s homes?
RC: No. Not to people’s homes. But Lockheed Martin is being a great partner on this because they tell us if they are assembling something and we are often allowed to go inside to film.
Last month, they developed a test in a huge vacuum chamber with solar panels. It is a very complicated technologically speaking, and we cannot go there. But they will film it for us with their team of filmmakers. When we cannot go inside, they try to provide us with whatever we need. But there are some things that we would like to film and at the moment we couldn’t, for instance, some confidential meetings.
And you know, there are problems. And this is normal, but at some point there must be negotiations between the engineers and the scientists
, because for scientists their point is, I need all the data I can get. And the engineers have to solve these requests. So of course, it’s a balance between what is feasible and what is not feasible. But there have to be hard negotiations. But sometimes they are kind of joking too. I mean, they have to ponder what an engineer can do. And they all were very reasonable people. They are a team. They are complete. But you cannot do everything. I mean, they are very sane people. But it’s good to know a team has different points of view sometimes.
HC: I guess a scientist has to make an argument to why this is such a vital piece of technology that is needed. And therefore has to be solved. This question has to be solved. And the engineer has to balance so many imperatives, sometimes they have to invent things that don’t even exist yet. I think this process of reaching a kind of perfection is fascinating. It’s like having architects vs engineers. They have an idea for a building. And the engineer says this is not possible. It’s going to look great but it’s not possible.
RC: Exactly. And it’s very hard for the scientist. I mean, for some of them, this is the mission of their lives, of course.
HC: Of their careers.
RC: It is difficult for them not to have everything they want.
HC: So you have access to all these great characters, like Donya Douglas-Bradshaw please tell me what they are like? What are their temperaments like?
RC: I find Donya amazing. I mean, the whole team. I’m like a teenager fan because I really feel admiration. Donya is a very powerful woman with a sense of humor, very, very clever, of course, very easygoing and is always happy, but with a lot of pressure because she has an important job and with a lot of responsibility. Yet she is a kind of peacemaker in the group.
HC: It sounds like Hal was very willing to have a team follow them and to enter this very specific, very special world. But can you share some insights into how you got their trust?
RC: Yeah, well it was their idea to do this. We shot about 15 people and none of them are shy. And Cathy (Deputy Principal Investigator) is always helping, is always giving information.
HC: I’m asking because most science films thrive because of their characters. Also I’m curious to know about using your animation process and techniques. How are you going to use that when you can’t film on an asteroid for example?
RC: There will be about 15 minutes of 3D and animation in a very realistic style. Mainly to illustrate scientific concepts or the spacecraft itself, and the Trojans.
AD: The flybys over the Trojans.
HC: That’s what I was imagining.
AD: The animation, there is no breakthrough there. It is going to be designed as a spacecraft would be designed. With a 3D computer so that we can move the camera around the spacecraft whenever we want, however we want. We also have to design the asteroids. The scientists have models of the asteroids in their offices. They are hanging from the ceilings. About six or seven of the models.
The scientists don’t know for sure how the asteroids look, because they can explore from the Earth, but they know more or less how big they are, and their shapes more or less. Of course they are not exactly. We are going to use those models, this technique to create the 3D models for the film.
RC: And then there will be but just a touch of some psychedelic graphics. Because some of scientists are like old rockers. And they play 70s music. So yes, sometimes we want to play with these psychedelic flavors that they are in fact using for the logo of the mission. And the posters too. They like to play with humor sometimes too.
HC: For sure. And also that era is when a lot of these ideas around astronomy became popular in that era. They were perceived as esoteric, strange fringe ideas. But then when people saw that you could land on the Moon and you can explore the solar system and the universe in a detailed way, the art around these ideas changed. The writing and filmmaking changed. Our perception of the universe changed.
It’s a great theme to have since it does connect to a moment of discovery and culture, especially in the United States in the 70s. Take some drugs and dream. That was it.
Ok, last question. I want to ask about where they’re at now. How is it going now? Do you think that they will make their launch window? How is vibe?
RC: I have no doubt that they are going to be on time. I mean, it’s not like they can stop. They have a schedule and they cannot have a delay. I will say, OK, they have to deal with Covid. They have to reorganize everything. But they dealt with it properly
HC: Talk to me a bit more about how Covid has changed your working practice and also the practice of of the scientists. Any insights into that?
RC: Well, we cannot travel to the U.S. But we were very fortunate that we were working with our DOP there. But you have to develop another method. When you are interviewing, you have to pretend to be there, sometimes interviewing and you have to pretend to be there. But in the end it’s not very traumatic for us. Sometimes, even NASA scientists can not get into places. Alphonse, do you remember that place we planned to shoot this instrument…
AD: I know – it was at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
RC: It was the one that we could not record in, but they recorded inside with their iphones.
AD: Yeah, because Goddard has higher Covid restrictions. They just allowed the scientists to continue their work and to use their personal iPhones. And of course the sound is not very good. Especially in this hangar, it is very noisy. It is really hard to even hear anyone talk.
HC: Right. I mean, it is not the same as being there. You obviously lose a lot of reacting in the moment as directors to be around these hot spots of tension. But I’m very curious to see how other directors respond to filming under Covid and how films change. But it sounds like you’re going to have a film in October.
RC: Yes, definitely.