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Space Station
a rare inside view of the next frontier in space exploration

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Series Photograph - Russian Service Modulean interview with karl sabbagh
producer, director and writer of PBS's SPACE STATION

Q. Why did you decide to take such an in-depth look at the International Space Station?

A. I have made a number of documentaries that show a group of people from beginning to end facing a series of challenges as they embark on a difficult engineering task. They are usually about an aspect of society tied in with technology and building.

So, having done a building, a plane, an art gallery and an airport, when I heard about the International Space Station I thought it would be a really interesting story. I liked that the project involved a range of decision making, such as technological decisions, operational ones having to do with launches, human ones concerning the people who have to live on the Space Station and cultural decisions. I found the interplay between the distinct cultures of the project's two main players - the Americans and Russians - most interesting.

Some people might think that I decided to work on this documentary series because I am an advocate of the Space Station. Really, I just thought people would enjoy learning about the project and its complexities. I chose this particular topic because it had all these interesting aspects. I hope that viewers of these two programs will be astonished at the complexity of even the simplest engineering task and amazed at the skills and abilities of the people who carry out those tasks. I think they will be impressed at the human ingenuity because I certainly am.

Series Photograph - The Space StationQ. How difficult was it for you to gain access around the world to the meetings, facilities, astronauts, launches and tests being performed?

A. When we are filming a situation, we establish ahead of time a relationship with the person or the people involved. We just don't charge into a meeting. We clear it with NASA Public Affairs and the person running the meeting. I believe that since the people working on the Space Station sense we are serious and that we are there for the long haul, they have been supportive and remarkably open and helpful. This is especially true for the astronauts, who are much in demand. But there have been plenty of occasions when we have been told we cannot film something and usually that is because NASA is concerned that the people involved in these crucial meetings might not speak frankly with cameras present. They are worried that the wrong decisions will be made which could have dangerous implications. However, we have filmed in enough of these types of situations where that just was not the case. On the whole, people are not so bemused by the cameras that they would actually not do or say something. I was surprised that although it sometimes has a reputation for being secretive and worried about competition, the Boeing Company effectively gave me total access.

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Q. On the basis of what you learned during the making of this program, what impressed you most about the teams of people working to construct the Space Station?

A. I am very impressed by the high level of dedication, commitment and skill exhibited by the engineers, scientists, astronauts and managers. Some of the problems they deal with are very complex and they take everything seriously, no matter how large or small the problem. They realize that there is no room for mistakes and that if they have to work twenty-four hours to meet the deadlines, then they will work twenty-four hours. I think you will find that when a job combines a professional skill, like engineering or management, with an intense interest in the subject of the work, the people are more dedicated than in any other organization.

Series Photograph - Crew InspectionQ. Is there a particular event or circumstance that stands out in your mind when you realized the complexity and enormity of the International Space Station project?

A. During the Space Shuttle mission to connect the first two parts of the Space Station, there was a comparatively simple problem with one of the antennas. However, it illuminated for me how many ramifications, people, decisions and precautions solving that one little problem involved. There is a part in the program showing astronauts jiggling an antenna to pry it loose during a spacewalk on the Russian Zarya Module. Before anybody agreed that the astronauts should try this, there was an exhausting series of consultations with people, organizations and companies in Russia and in America - from the designers of the antenna and the spacesuits to the people who constructed the Space Shuttle. It never occurred to me that all of these people would have an interest in this one small event. It was very eye-opening to see an incident like that unfold. These teams around the world were engaged in this complex dialogue to make absolutely sure that proceeding with jiggling the antenna would be not 95 percent safe, but 99.9 percent safe before they would give the astronauts permission to do it.

Q. You are known for your "process documentaries." Can you explain what is involved in making these films?

A. My working style differs from the average producer. Generally, a documentary is a very constructed piece of work. Research is done, a treatment is written and quite often it uses the participants like actors. For the process documentary, I first choose an unfolding story whose outcome is pretty certain, but how the people will achieve the end result is unknown. The subject matters usually involve engineering, technology and building. Next, I observe the process of how they complete the task without interfering in their work. I decided to work this way beginning with the SKYSCRAPER series because I wanted to get more of a sense of realism into my documentaries. During the filming, I avoided where humanly possible any kind of interference in what the people were doing. I acted more like an observer or fly-on-the-wall and let whatever happen in front of the camera. I have found that people behave more normally with this method than in the average documentary because they forget the camera is there.

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*Click on images for captions
Photo credits for all images: NASA.

 

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