ZERO GRAVITY Cracks the Code

Review by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor

It’s easy to get depressed about the state of the world, but see Zero Gravity and you’ll feel a good deal more optimistic. The documentary follows a  diverse group of bright middle-school students as they participate in a summer program that teaches them how to write code for satellites, culminating in a competition run by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. None of the kids has coded before, and the way they quickly learn and overcome setbacks to succeed is nothing short of inspirational.

The program, called Zero Robotics, has been run by NASA and the MIT Space Systems Laboratory since 2009, and was inspired by the floating droid that zaps Luke Skywalker while he is training with his lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope. MIT came up with similar-looking SPHERES – Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites – that are about the size of a volleyball. Middle-school teams from across the country write code to direct the SPHERES to do various tasks within the context of a game, and those with the best results get to upload their code to the actual SPHERES aboard the ISS to see how they perform during a live competition.

The students in Zero Gravity live in San Jose, California, where those not in the tech industry are being priced out of their neighborhoods. That motivates teacher Tanner Marcoida to take on the project, even though he doesn’t know that much about coding himself. He wants his students to have the chance to stay in the area. The kids are apprehensive but eager to learn, and they quickly catch on. The film shows them working through math problems and graphing the results, and their level of knowledge and expertise is impressive.

Their teamwork is even more impressive. They have to collaborate on every step. One student says that everyone on the team is good at something different, and the project requires all of them working together to solve a problem. That’s a lesson that will stand them in good stead whether or not they go on to the STEM careers they envision.

The film features three students, two of them immigrants, and shows some of their family lives as well as their efforts in the classroom. Each student has difficulties to deal with: the loss of grandparents, being bullied, racism; but each also has supportive parents who not only make sure the kids get to the school each day, but who also spend time with their kids. They take the time to pass on their culture and family memories. One father turns off the internet, and as a result his daughter plays chess for fun. Another family goes for regular hikes together. There’s a lesson here for parents, too, on how to raise a successful kid.

The stories of children creating code that could one day guide satellites to Mars is compelling, but Zero Gravity also benefits from its beautiful cinematography and skillful editing. The film also employs footage from NASA to capture the beauty of Earth and Mars as well as footage of the astronauts and scientists who work with the students. The result is an inspirational documentary well worth seeing.

Zero Gravity screens tonight as part of the Dances with Films film festival at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

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