Inside NASA's high-stakes Hubble repair mission

The "IMAX: Hubble 3D" film--a feast for the eyes--details the risks and rewards of keeping the Hubble Space Telescope functional.

A new film treats audiences to a high-fidelity and front-row view of the Hubble Space Telescope repairs. Warner Bros.

AUSTIN, Texas--Deep, deep in the reaches of outerspace, there is a star factory. Astronomers have theorized about its appearance, though they've never had a realistic view of it.

Until now.

Last year, the space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida en route to a very special mission: NASA'S last-ditch attempt to repair the Hubble Space Telescope before it was too late to salvage humankind's greatest tool for peering at the mysteries in the farthest parts of the sky.

In the new film, "IMAX: Hubble 3D," viewers are treated to the riches of some of the most stunning footage ever taken of a NASA mission, as well as to fantastical voyages to the interior of the star clusters of the Orion Nebula, a place where stars are born, and to our closest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, fully 2.5 million light years from home.

"Hubble 3D" is one of the films that is part of the South by Southwest festival here this week. During a press screening, I was able to glimpse both far into the past and at the future of science's understanding of our celestial neighbors.

Narrated by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, "Hubble 3D" was an unexpected surprise. It tells the story of the final Hubble rescue mission, largely from the perspective of a film crew with unprecedented access: the astronauts who took part in mission STS-125, aboard the shuttle Atlantis itself.

Actually, the film is made up of footage from three missions: STS-31, which launched Hubble in 1990; STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission, in 1993; and STS-125, which lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on May 11, 2009.

The film begins with DiCaprio's ominous voiceover: "This is the last chance to save the Hubble Telescope," but quickly backpedals into a bit of history, showing archival footage from the Hubble's pre-launch days in Sunnyvale, Calif., in 1989, and the question everyone wanted to know about the telescope's mission: "Could we finally unlock the secrets of the universe?"

The strength of "Hubble 3D" is its soaring imagery, which includes not just crisp, on-the-spot footage of the repair mission taken from an IMAX camera mounted inside Atlantis' cargo bay but also powerful, prolonged digital visualizations of what, for example, a high-speed trip inside the Orion Nebula would look like.

After watching the film, I was tempted to think that the Orion Nebula sequence, and others like it, were basically educated guesses put to high-quality computer graphics. But on Sunday, I had a chance to speak with the film's director and producer, Toni Myers, as well as Michael Massimino, one of the STS-125 astronauts tasked with doing the actual Hubble repairs, and I was set straight.

"It is computed," Myers said of the deep space sequences, "but it is all real Hubble data."

She explained that in, for example, the Orion sequence, the footage is "flying through that whole data set," meaning that scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland and at the supercomputing lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had used the actual data collected by Hubble and built a visualization of what flying through the nebula would be like.

"The software just allows you to pick key frames to plot your flight," Myers said, "and the computer interpolates and can program in roll and pitch," essentially the animation techniques needed for the film.

Myers added that it was important for her that people, especially children, know that while these special sequences are computerized, they're not special effects, at least not in the sense that they're made up. Their basis on the real Hubble data, in other words, makes them, to Myers, as real as can be.

A star nursery
Having watched the film, I can only shake my head in wonder. The best example is the Orion Nebula sequence, where the camera zooms at a smooth, leisurely pace down through a galactic-sized canyon of clouds 90 trillion miles across, and eventually reaches what DiCaprio calls a "star nursery," "a flock of baby stars, each nested in its own cocoon...and inside each cocoon is an infant solar system."

This moment alone makes seeing "Hubble 3D" worth the price of admission, and that's not even taking into consideration any of the actual IMAX footage of the Hubble.

"I don't think the human mind could guess at that," Massimino told me during our interview Sunday at the Texas State History Museum, where the film was shown. "Hubble shows that it's beyond our imagination. What is really out there is cool, cooler than science fiction could ever come up with. That's what's out there, and that's what you see in the movie. Solar systems are forming, and some will make it, and some won't."

Indeed. "Perhaps," DiCaprio says over the footage, "this is how and our own solar system began."

In the pool
Before the STS-125 crew members could head into space for their work on Hubble, they had to make sure they were capable of performing the highly detailed and extremely complex manual labor on a series of very small, very sensitive instruments.

Planet Earth does not provide many places where astronauts can practice on such equipment in the kind of weightless environment that mimics open space. Thus, the crew, and the "Hubble 3D" team ended up in a giant pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In order to prepare for the weightless environment that they'd be in when working on Hubble, the crew members rehearsed in the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Warner Bros.

Again, the film treats us to stupendous imagery outside of the collection of in-space Hubble repair sequences. This time, Myers was able to rig up an IMAX camera that went into the pool and was able to shoot footage of the astronauts during their rehearsals. Unfortunately, the camera doesn't linger too long. I would have liked them to stay in that pool with the STS-125 crew for hours, but time is short, and the film needed to move on.

Befitting any movie with this kind of photographic firepower at its disposal, Myers' project doesn't skimp when it came to shots of the launch of Atlantis in May. Here, we get to see close-up footage with incredible audio fidelity of the launch. We've seen this before, of course, but how many times on a giant IMAX screen--and in 3D. It's jaw-dropping and unexpectedly emotional.

Finally, of course, we are in space and we are with the crew both inside Atlantis--using normal HD video cameras--and outside, where the IMAX equipment reveals all its power. Here we see long sequences of the astronauts laboring over one fix or another, musing on the dangers of ripping open of their spacesuits while outside the shuttle--certain death, by the way--and of them trying to figure out how to solve one unanticipated problem after another.

Mix in long shots like that, including a kind of step-by-step explanation of the repairs and what it took to make them happen, with more deep space imagery of things like the Carina Nebula, the Helix Nebula, and shots of the pitch-black sky lit by just "millions of stars at a glance," and you have a special film about space and the powers and importance of space exploration.

Still, I wondered how Myers was sure that the events of the film would make for a good story. I'm trying to imagine a compelling movie about car repair, for example, and I can't think of one. I've been to several NASA facilities myself, and though I've always enjoyed them, much of what you see in such places is antiseptic and cold.

Myers said she had first begun filming the Hubble saga in 1990, and that since then, the telescope's history has been marked with one great twist after another, including NASA's decision in 2006 to, as Myers put it, "torpedo" the project. But she knew, in the end, that the story had definite dramatic potential. And she was right.

To be sure, though NASA participated in every aspect of the film, its first priority was completing the mission. And while crew members learned how to operate the IMAX equipment, they knew what their primary task was and would not let the movie get in the way of that. That's especially true given how sensitive much of the Hubble equipment is.

Massimino was certain, too, that fixing Hubble was the most important job: "We didn't want the film to be a tragedy...the destruction of Hubble in 3D."

Correction, 10:04 a.m. PDT: This post initially misstated the distance of the Andromeda galaxy. It's 2.5 million light years from home.

 

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