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Dark Side of the Earth

Monday, October 08, 2012 - 07:00 PM

Astronaut Dave Wolf performing a spacewalk on the Endeavour in July, 2009. Astronaut Dave Wolf performing a spacewalk on the Endeavour in July, 2009. (NASA)

200 miles above Earth's surface, astronaut Dave Wolf -- rocketing through the blackness of Earth's shadow at 5 miles a second -- floated out of the Mir Space Station on his very first spacewalk. In this short, he describes the extremes of light and dark in space, relives a heart-pounding close call, and shares one of the most tranquil moments of his life.

When we were putting together our live show In the Dark, Jad and Robert called up Dave Wolf to ask him if he had any stories about darkness. And boy, did he. Dave told us two stories that  became the finale of our show.

Back in late 1997, Dave Wolf was on his first spacewalk, to perform work on the Mir (the photo to the right was taken during that mission, courtesy of NASA.). Dave wasn't alone -- with him was veteran Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev. (That's a picture of Dave giving Anatoly a hug on board the Mir, also courtesy of NASA).

Out in blackness of space, the contrast between light and dark is almost unimaginably extreme -- every 45 minutes, you plunge between absolute darkness on the night-side of Earth, and blazing light as the sun screams into view. Dave and Anatoly were tethered to the spacecraft, traveling 5 miles per second. That's 16 times faster than we travel on Earth's surface as it rotates -- so as they orbited, they experienced 16 nights and 16 days for every Earth day.

Dave's description of his first spacewalk was all we could've asked for, and more. But what happened next ... well, it's just one of those stories that you always hope an astronaut will tell. Dave and Anatoly were ready to call it a job and head back into the Mir when something went wrong with the airlock. They couldn't get it to re-pressurize. In other words, they were locked out. After hours of trying to fix the airlock, they were running out of the resources that kept them alive in their space suits and facing a grisly death. So, they unhooked their tethers, and tried one last desperate move .

In the end, they made it through, and Dave went on to perform dozens more spacewalks in the years to come, but he never again experienced anything like those harrowing minutes trying to improvise his way back into the Mir.

After that terrifying tale, Dave told us about another moment he and Anatoly shared, floating high above Earth, staring out into the universe ... a moment so beautiful, and peaceful, we decided to use the audience recreate it, as best we could, for the final act of our live show.

Pilobolus creates a shadow astronaut during Dave Wolf's story on stage (photo by Lars Topelmann):

The audience turns Portland's Keller auditorium into a view of outer space with thousands of LED lights (photo by Lars Topelmann):

Here's Dave Wolf in the dark darkness of space, performing a spacewalk in 2009 (courtesy of NASA):

To give you an idea of what it looks like during the brightness of day, here's another photo taken in 2009 -- more than a decade after the adventure described in our podcast -- this time of astronaut Tom Marshburn (Dave Wolf is with him, out of frame, photo courtesy of NASA):

We had such an amazing time touring around the country with Radiolab Live: In the Dark. Here's a slideshow of some favorite action shots:

Pilobolus pours light to create a sun on the stage.
Jared Kelly
Pilobolus pours light to create a sun on the stage.

The amazing modern dance troupe Pilobolus collaborated with us on the show. They're a fantastically talented, insanely fun bunch of artists. Here they are on stage, about to create a giant sun on stage behind Jad and Robert during our Berkeley performance.

And here's a look at the sun created by Pilobolus, on stage at Berkeley.
Jared Kelly
And here's a look at the sun created by Pilobolus, on stage at Berkeley.
Pilobolus makes a shadow astronaut as Dave Wolf describes the contrast between light and dark in outer space.
Jared Kelly
Pilobolus makes a shadow astronaut as Dave Wolf describes the contrast between light and dark in outer space.
Whoosh! Pilobolus simulates the blazing brightness of a sunrise seen from space.
Jared Kelly
Whoosh! Pilobolus simulates the blazing brightness of a sunrise seen from space.
Comedian Demetri Martin has rocker Thao Nguyen and Jad & Robert blindfolded as the audience gets their LEDs ready.
Lars Topelmann
Comedian Demetri Martin has rocker Thao Nguyen and Jad & Robert blindfolded as the audience gets their LEDs ready.
The audience in Berkeley transforms the theater into a twinkling space scene.
Jared Kelly
The audience in Berkeley transforms the theater into a twinkling space scene.
Thanks everybody! A shot from the audience at the end of the performance in Milwaukee.
Thanks everybody! A shot from the audience at the end of the performance in Milwaukee.


Dave Wolf


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Comments [72]

G. Rios Escobar from LA, CALIFORNIA

Hello, this podcast was really great, I hope there are more stories like this. It's 2017 and I just heard it now, which is saddening.
Any ways did Thao ever record that song? It's so amazing!

Oct. 31 2017 07:46 PM
Juan freddy Fernandez


Jan. 27 2017 01:46 PM
Casey M. from Portland, OR

Not sure how I missed this one, absolutely amazing. I could not believe the sensation I got from the final 5 minutes of this podcast. Incredible job somehow doing the impossible in at least semi-replicating the feeling one most have gazing out into the vastness of the cosmos.

Oct. 21 2015 08:15 PM
Elinor Rousseau from United States

It would of been amazing to see the shadow dancers along with the story from this podcast. I listened twice because the story of darkness is so breathtakingly beautiful. His perspective is one that most humans will never experience in their life, but this podcast made me and the audience seem like they were floating alongside Dave Wolf in the darkness. Space is such a mysterious thing to me, and this podcast opened my mind to what its like to work in space in a way that it has never been told before.

Jan. 25 2015 04:38 PM
Asimov M. Gandolf from Orlando

It must have been amazing seeing what Wolf saw in space. I've always thought that space was cool but terrifying at the same time. This podcast definitely supports my idea. It must have been beautiful to see from the ship, but having your airlock not work and having the sun erupt at you must have been scary.

Jan. 25 2015 10:37 AM
Upton C. Gatsby from Florida

I LOVE everything to do with space and hearing astronaut talk about space. However, ive really never thought of the contrast between "night" and "day" while orbiting earth. What he talked about how things would basically disappear in the shadows was so compelling. His story of being pushed out into space when it is pitch black was both beautiful and horrifying to me. I would surely die of a heart attack. His talks about light were also amazing. He talks about how his whole world basically wakes up and everything comes into view. Likewise, heart attack. Still I would love to see the earth from the outside. Ive always thought that that view would be incomparable to anything on earth.

Jan. 12 2015 10:00 PM
Christopher Sutton from New Zealand

I stumbled across this after looking at something on National Geographic. I'm so glad I did. It was nice to listen to something so profound and interesting while I was folding laundry.

Really wish I could've seen the show, it sounds like it was out of this world.

Jan. 08 2015 05:05 PM
Oscar Rosseau

Those stories were awesome. As someone who wants to major in aerospace engineering, these stories are part of what makes that career worthwhile. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to be stuck on the outside of that airlock. The music from the live show fit in really nice with the story.

Nov. 10 2014 09:40 PM
Dante from Florida

First off amazing story! Sounds like Dave Wolf’s story will be an especially memorable first space mission on the MIR. I really like how Dave mentioned how his arm seemed to disappear when he stuck it into the shadow casted by the wing. I also found it really interesting how they were 200 miles above Earth traveling at 5 miles/second, and they saw the sun set and rise in just 45 minutes in a flash. So one day on Earth is equivalent to 16 days up there.

Nov. 03 2014 09:13 PM
Marcella from Nicaragua

Please, what is the last song of this show?
This was a great podcast. I'm left in awe.
Thank you

Aug. 23 2014 10:21 AM
Midway from New York

Happy Earth Day! This is one of my favorite podcasts of all time!

Apr. 22 2014 03:39 PM

Outstanding. We need more historical story tellers. People learn to listen to these stories. Indians still keep their stories going. Dave keep sharing. Thank you radiolab.

Feb. 27 2014 11:26 AM
Jesse Keck from Maine

Another request for that song at the end please! So relaxing!

Dec. 30 2013 09:03 PM
Felipe from Brazil

I NEED the video.

Nov. 25 2013 05:04 PM

Really hope Thao Nguyen records that song!!!

Sep. 15 2013 12:59 PM
Baris from Istanbul/Boston

I think this is one of the most amazing thing I have ever heard! I have listened to it at least 30 times. Especially the last part where the astronaut tells the "relax" story. I felt like I was floating in the air as I listened to that part. Thanks!

Jun. 28 2013 05:24 AM
Donat Janos from Budapest - Hungary

Dear Mr. David Wolf,

I am Dr János Donát, I started to collect autographs and signed pictures in 1970. My main purpose is to collect and preserve specimens of handwriting of outstanding people, such as prominent cultural figures of the whole world as well as politicians and as well from scientist to actors and from sportmen to actors and musicians. In my collection there are signatures of the religious leaders, politicians, royalities, scientists, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, directors, actors, sportmen, musicians, etc. I do not collect just signatures, my collection consists of photos with signatures (signed pictures), letters, historical manuscripts, namecards, postcards, etc.

Nowadays I have more than cc. 30.000 autographs, historical letters, historical documents, papers, etc. with original signatures. The only criteria in my collection is to be original.

I organised very successfull autograph exhibitions in Hungary. All autographs exhibited were authentic, original and personal. I would be thankful to everybody who helps me in obtaining new autographs.

Up to now, I have compiled signatures from almost all of these mentioned famous people. However, despite my best efforts, some autographs are still missing from my collection. That is why, I kindly ask you, to send some - exceptionally - original signatures of the yours to complete my special collection.

Let me extend my best wishes for all your future professional and personal accomplishments. I am looking forward to receiving your answer with your handwritten autographs. My address is below. It's very important for me !!!

Our website:

Budapest, 9th of June, 2013.

Yours truly,
thank you in advance for your kind cooperation!

Dr. Janos Donat
1037 Budapest
Remetehegyi út 181/b
Hungary - Europe

Jun. 09 2013 08:23 AM
kenneth alan from Brooklyn, NY

Also really loved the song, hope she records it if she hasn't yet!

May. 12 2013 12:38 PM
Liv from Chicago

Song for download pleeease!

Apr. 14 2013 10:53 PM
Samantha C from Alabama

Fascinating episode. If Dave's experiences are typical, or even halfway typical, you could make make an entire series by just calling up old astronauts and asking for stories.

Come to think of it, why hasn't anyone done this?

Mar. 21 2013 11:18 PM

Hello this is kinda of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to
manually code with HTML. I'm starting a blog soon but have no coding know-how so I wanted to get advice from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Mar. 07 2013 06:02 AM
Andy from Los Angeles

I want that song. Give me that song. I will pay for that song. Please.

Feb. 22 2013 04:09 AM
Janis from California

" ... it's just one of those stories that you always hope an astronaut will tell."

Uh, no. It's one of those stories you NEVER hope an astronaut has to tell.

Jan. 16 2013 01:24 PM

This was my first podcast. I absolutely loved it! I loved the song at the end!!!!!

Jan. 10 2013 01:03 AM
Héctor V. Díaz

I absolutely LOVED the song at the end. Please, please please record it!

Jan. 06 2013 05:22 AM
Montia from California


Jan. 03 2013 09:11 PM
nicolecm from Irvine, CA

i keep listening to the end over and over...that song is incredible even without listening to the short it gives me goosebumps... I NEED IT!!!! :)

Jan. 03 2013 06:53 PM
Mario Acevedo from Rancho Cordova, CA

Please provide the song at the end for downloading... please... please

Jan. 03 2013 07:21 AM
bbb from canberra, australia

When will that music be available

Dec. 28 2012 02:16 AM

Amazing episode. More Dave!
Amazing song - I'd pay for it on iTunes. Please please record it!

Dec. 14 2012 12:29 AM
Paul Antonissen

Another request for that song. It's amazing

Nov. 19 2012 09:47 PM
Bob from Kentucky

Another really good one. Someone should do a remix with the music of Rosetta-song:Wake in the background.

Nov. 19 2012 09:17 AM
Kamil Chajder from Montreal

I love that song at the end

Nov. 14 2012 09:26 PM
Kim from Istanbul, Turkey

I nearly cried when I listened to this, I thought it was so beautifully told and so moving! I just got such a vivid mental picture of everything in the story! As always, Radiolab made my day!

Nov. 13 2012 01:58 PM

Song request number thirty-something.

Nov. 11 2012 12:00 AM
Ryan Oliver from Los Angeles

I love this story. I listened to it in the dark and it's like I was experiencing what it's like in outer space going 5 miles a second and seeing the cycle of light and dark below me. I especially liked the "relax" part at the end and felt like I was just afloat surrounded by distant stars with no worries in the world. Very relaxing. The music that accompanied it was perfect too. I was looking for the title of that song, but I read it's not even recorded yet. It sounds so soothing and very relaxing. Thanks for the experience! I'm a listener of KPCC and I love Radio Lab!

Nov. 10 2012 09:39 PM
John from Indiana

David Wolf once told another story about a glitch on his mission to the Mir space station that might be of interest to Radiolab listeners and people like Jad who are fascinated by sounds. Dark is the absence of light. Silence is the absence of sound. David was talking about a glitch on this mission and said "you haven't experienced true silence until you've been on a space station and the power goes out". Think about that a minute and it will give you chills.

The music towards the end of this short sounds like it was inspired by Pink Floyd's "Breathe" from Dark Side of the Moon.

Nov. 06 2012 12:36 AM
Chad Sabo from Maumee, OH

This was such a terrific show. Thank you so much for the great story!

Nov. 02 2012 01:56 AM
Jon Klocek from Minneapolis

This story is absolutely incredible, well done!

Oct. 31 2012 02:22 PM
Linae Mag

again again I know but I LOVED that last song in this podcast! so here's just some more positive feedback so hopefully Thao Nguyen may record it, Radiolab, please let us know when this track is made available for sale!

Oct. 30 2012 12:38 PM

I would love to play the Thao Nguyen song for my music-loving, 19 mo old son. He will cry if I only play him the snippet from the podcast. So I need the whole song! Please record it, so that I may purchase it!

Oct. 25 2012 12:22 AM

Please record that song at the end of the podcast. Amazing. Really sent chills down my spine by the end of the episode.

Oct. 23 2012 03:25 PM

I too love the stunningly beautiful song at the end and would be so happy to see it recorded.

Oct. 20 2012 05:20 PM

Was this short released in coordination with the space jump? Because, if so, I was very slow on the uptake.

Oct. 19 2012 10:09 PM
Ryan from Los Angeles, CA

I also want that song...

Oct. 18 2012 09:48 PM

This is a powerful story. He went out of body at the end. This happened to me once. We went to virgin ravine (trees never cut) with a little stream in it. We went there because we were doing a modern dance at Allegheny College. We were dancing the water cycle. We got up before the dawn of our first performance and sat by the little stream. There was no one around me. The sun was coming up. I was so relaxed. I felt like something was there. My mind opened up with a view point of the massive tree canopies and then...of everything. It was so unbelievable but disorienting and it only lasted a few seconds. There were no drugs involved.

Oct. 18 2012 04:00 PM
Ignominia from Poppi, Tuscany, Italy

nice about the dark in space, but one does not need to go so far to experience total darkness. I did once in Assisi, the Umbrian town in Italy, climbing a stone spiral staircase in the top fortress above the town. As soon as the light from below was blocked from entering and I wasn't yet up enough to have the above light entering the spiral, I was in a total void and empty space. It was a very peaceful state, I was without substance, experiencing without the perception of a body and therefore of danger. I like to think that is what death is like. I spent some time there savoring it and then I gingerly stepped up to light and the awesome view of the valley and town below

Oct. 17 2012 04:13 AM
Ty Tuff from Boulder, CO

Wonderful story! I made a short video from your audio to use as a lecture intro for a talk I'm giving. It seems appropriate to show you what I've done in case you take issue with me using your clips for my project. This video can probably best be described as fan art, please check it out.

Oct. 16 2012 11:47 AM
David from Boise, ID

Amazing episode. Thao Nguyen, please record that haunting song from the end! It is amazing.

Oct. 16 2012 01:25 AM
Hannah from Bellingham

What a great short! I'm bummed I missed the show in Seattle!
Keep up the good work Radiolab.

Oct. 16 2012 12:22 AM

The Thao Nguyen song used at the end - as simple as it is - is great. Please record Thao! Would gladly send you my monies to listen to this as I work.

Oct. 15 2012 12:36 PM
David from Los Angeles, CA

Would love to know the ambient music used during the moment Dave Wolf says "Relax...Relax..", It's really great.

Oct. 14 2012 02:20 AM

Great show. Just wanted to re-echo earlier comments about the song by Thao Nguyen. I would pay for it.

Oct. 14 2012 01:00 AM

I saw the live show in Philadelphia. The finale was just amazing! Pilobolus dancing and creating images of the story, then goosebumps followed by beauty and wonder as the Kimmel Theater lit up with LED stars. A few stars followed by more and then more until the entire theater was like looking into deep space. It was so cool that you didn't have to tell the audience to get out the LED's that were handed out as we came in.

"There is no other light, not other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity"


Oct. 11 2012 04:50 AM
Linda from San Mateo, CA

I love Radio Lab, like I love This American Life - you make me continue to believe in the nth dimension of Art, which is wholeness, incredibility, strength, love, joy fun and all that's worthwhile. I am glad the cosmonauts lived to tell the story

Oct. 11 2012 03:22 AM
Murray from Portland OR

I was at the live taping of this show in Portland....did I say "taping"?

The earth spins around
Surfing the cosmic waves
Searching for answers

Not my Haiku, but from

Oct. 10 2012 11:10 PM

"Don't look down."

They have us "looking up" each and every time. There is nothing in earthbound experience that turns humanity's gaze upward, together, in unison, in awe.

This show meets the full measure of what space exploration presents. Thanks!

Oct. 10 2012 08:35 PM
Tom Voegtli from miami Fl

I saw your Miami show !!!!!!
When will you return !!!!!!!

Oct. 10 2012 07:34 PM

To everyone interested in the song at the end of the podcast -- it's a Thao Nguyen original that she performed just for our show, and it's not yet recorded. She said she'll think about recording it depending on how positive the response is from any fans, so keep those song requests coming!

Oct. 10 2012 04:15 PM
joe from seattle, wa

What a great show. I'm also interested in the closing music. Any info on the artist/song would be greatly appreciated.

Oct. 10 2012 12:59 PM
Juan Luis from London, UK

I've been working on Alfonso Cuaron's movie 'Gravity' for the past year, which takes place entirely in low-earth orbit. I think it evokes for a viewer the experience that Dave Wolf was describing, and when it comes out (sometime next year) I hope he will see it, I'd be fascinated to know what he thinks of it.

Oct. 10 2012 05:24 AM
skleeve from Portland, OR

Excellent, excellent show yet again! Thank you for always expanding my mind.

I must know more about the music at the end! I would happily pay and download. Please, must hear more of atmospheric & floaty. Please share.

Oct. 10 2012 12:24 AM
Bryan Glazer from Memphis

What an amazingly cool short. Thanks! I've never really considered how miserable a space walk could be until Dave described spitting onto his fogged up visor. Such an extreme of experiences when contrasted with his out of body description of looking out into the stars with Anatoly.

Oct. 09 2012 10:53 PM
JD Love from Philadelphia

Watched this live for my b-day. The whole show was awesome but this piece took the proverbial cake. Goosebumps all the way. And of course, hardly any sci-fi film has ever quite captured how strange and frightening space truly is.

Get back to Philly soon!

Oct. 09 2012 03:31 PM
Bryan from North Carolina

You guys do a killer job telling stories. That was one of your best. I think I will listen to it again!

Oct. 09 2012 03:10 PM

Is Thao Nguyen playing the music in the end of the production? Does anyone know details on the music?

Oct. 09 2012 01:24 PM
Sheila P. from Jackson, WY

This was the most wonderful and aweing thing that I have ever heard. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Thank you and I really enjoy your show!

Oct. 09 2012 01:19 PM
Harpreet Kaur from Los Angeles

What amazing stories - beautiful music - fantastic everything.
Bring Back the Radio <3

What a ridiculously incredible experience. Thank you .
I want more . Let's get Dave a whole slew of Shows !!

Oct. 09 2012 12:09 PM

Amazing stories! I could listen to these for hours.

Guess I have, listened to this episode three times already and still want to hear it again!

Oct. 09 2012 08:43 AM
Tom from Oregon

I never could've imagined. You took me right there. And what a stupendous radio production!

Oct. 08 2012 10:02 PM

I saw you guys perform this piece in Seattle. Truly an amazing story.

Oct. 08 2012 08:28 PM
Benjamin Goldstein from Philadelphia

I though this was one of the best radio lab shorts I have ever heard. I never considered what it would be like to put your arm into a shadow in space. That was so interesting to learn.

Oct. 08 2012 08:14 PM

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