"The first Asian Jew in the wrong room" – Josh Burstein introduced himself when we called on the phone earlier this week.
The fake space in question is the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), where NASA has regularly isolated teams of astronauts to investigate how they respond to the pressures of space exploration – and where Burstein was stationed last year. Now he's releasing a 37-minute documentary special about this experience called "Spacedrop".
The special lives up to its motto: "How to quarantine". For two weeks, Burstein and an international team of scientists, led by Michaela Musilova, treated a habitat on the slopes of Mauna Loa like a real habitat on the moon or Mars – they spent most of the time inside and only went to get to it explore the landscape beyond its walls after putting on a breathing apparatus that comes close to a real space suit.
And yes, the film spends a few minutes on the parallels between a simulated space quarantine and our current coronavirus-infused world of staying at home.
Burstein admitted that the situations are very different – firstly, HI-SEAS was a much shorter quarantine. And while he spent time in both the special and our interview talking about the amazing feeling of going outside after the quarantine ended and “hearing the spokes of a bike, seeing the color green, everything came in Technicolor back ”, it seems unlikely that the rest of us will get an equally quick and satisfactory return to normalcy.
"We will not break out of quarantine," he said. "It's going to be a slow burn."
Still, he believes that there are lessons that people can learn from his experiences, such as the importance of “successfully managing expectations”. And he hopes that "Spacedrop" will help to illustrate the importance of space research even in times of global crises and on the way to a probably global recession.
After all, he noted that space education and research is not just about "meeting Boba Fett", but it also has real benefits for science and technology here on Earth. And one of the big issues in documentary film is international collaboration.
"Democrats and Republicans agree that space is cool," said Burstein, adding that the International Space Station is the only place "where Americans and Russians are in constant collaboration and have a strong relationship."
And even though it's a documentary (a word Burstein shrank from in our interview), it's far from being self-serious or boring. Instead, there are many jokes about cabin fever, body odor, and the disappointing condition of the space kitchen.
After all, Burstein – a non-scientist, non-astronaut, whose resume includes stages in the Obama campaign and as Charlie Sheen's social media manager – is admirably realistic about his own role in the mission. He happily described himself as a "red shirt", and the special points out that his first job in a spacesuit is to take out the trash.
How was Burstein invited to participate? He told me that he called NASA cold and convinced her to let him join in and film the experience. After all, communication and education are an important part of space research.
Whether he was considering a trip to the real moon or to Mars, he said he was ready – but maybe not on these first missions: "I would go on a leisure trip to the moon and eat in the moon bar at Sbarro."
"Spacedrop" is coming to Amazon Prime Video soon and is live on Vimeo in the meantime.