Cumulatively, Mike Fincke has spent more than 381 days orbiting the Earth — the record for an American astronaut. Whenever he needed a break from conducting scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station, Fincke headed straight for the cupola, a panoramic window onto the universe.
“You can spend all day and all night just looking at the planet as it goes by,” Fincke says. “After a while, I could tell what ocean we were over just by its color. Each desert has its own hue and tint.”
On Friday, you, too, can discover what it’s like to be an astronaut looking back at Earth. At least, that’s the goal of composer Kenji Williams, who is bringing the immersive performance “Bella Gaia” to Strathmore.
“I met Mike Fincke in 2005, and he told me about this transformative experience he had seeing Earth from space,” Williams says. “I thought, ‘How can I simulate this feeling for people who can’t yet go to space?’ ”
That feeling is known as “the overview effect,” a gut-level appreciation for the beauty and fragility of our home planet. Seeing clouds and dust storms swirl across continents and watching cities light up at night, gives you a sense of Earth as a single, living thing, astronauts say. Then there’s the atmosphere, that thin, pink line separating us from instant death.
“It’s just like a little apple skin around planet Earth,” says Fincke. “You think, ‘Holy moly, we gotta take care of this place.’ ”
Inspired by Fincke’s experience, Williams tapped into his background as a filmmaker and a composer to strengthen audiences’ emotional connection to the planet. In collaboration with NASA, he used the agency’s videos and data visualizations to create a 90-minute movie that’s projected onto a large screen and accompanied by live performances of pulsing world music and Indian dancing.
“The trance-like repetitive beats and rhythms and melodies bring you deeper into that space than just the images alone,” says Williams, who plays violin during the show and recently released the “Bella Gaia” soundtrack on iTunes.
The movie shows whirling ocean currents that look like a Van Gogh painting as well as more pointed images, such as melting ice caps and black carbon being carried on air currents. The goal is to give people an astronaut’s-eye view of man’s impact on the planet without being preachy, Williams says.
“I’m just showing the data and letting the audience come to their own conclusions,” he says.
According to Fincke, Williams’ mix of art and science really does approximate what it feels like to gaze at Earth from space.
“Kenji brings all of those emotions together through visuals and through music,” Fincke says. “I think it’s the next best thing to being there.”
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Fri., 8 p.m., $28-$42.