The new 3-D IMAX film opening Friday (finally!) at the Maryland Science Center is a hoot for anyone who's been captivated by the manned space program, or by the fabulous photos the Hubble Space Telescope has been sending us since its launch 20 years ago this month.
Well, okay, so the Hubble's photos weren't too fabulous for the first few years after its launch. An error in the curvature of the observatory's main mirror made the $2 billion telescope a trifle nearsighted and an intense disappointment to all who had working since the 1970s to plan, engineer and build the thing.
But the miracle and the genius of the project was that Hubble was built to be serviced. Scientists figured out how to fashion a corrective lens that could correct for the "spherical aberration" in the main mirror, and insert it into the light path leading to the telescope's scientific instruments. It was called COSTAR, and once it was installed in 1993 by a team of brave and skilled astronauts, it worked brilliantly. (All instruments installed on the telescope since then have included built-in corrective lenses, and COSTAR has been removed.)
And that's been the story of Hubble ever since. Beyond the vast wealth of ground-breaking, haunting and eerily beautiful images Hubble has sent us since 1993, the program, again and again, has proven the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the scientists and engineers and astronauts who have worked with the observatory.
And the new 3-D IMAX film brings that all startlingly to life.
Through comically huge 3-D spectacles, viewers are transported to the "clean room" in Sunnyvale, Calif., where Hubble was prepared for launch, and from there to the launch tower at Cape Canaveral as the telescope is blasted into orbit.
With 3-D footage shot during the installation of the COSTAR device in 1993, viewers float out into the payload bay as astronauts labor to squeeze the corrective apparatus into the telescope's innards. Later in the film, you're rocketed back into space with John Grunsfeld (at right, now the deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore) as he returns to the telescope in May 2009 to wrestle new instruments into Hubble's science bay, and repair other hardware. It was the final servicing mission to the telescope.
The breadth of the IMAX screen and the giant glasses give you, perhaps for the first time ever, a sense of what astronauts must see as they venture outside the shuttle and gaze out at the Earth. One of them calls the view "a gift that astronauts have been given." But ours may be even better. The planet fills your field of view, without the limits of a space helmet or the dimming effects of a visor. It's just you, the shuttle and telescope, and the planet, in three dimensions.
There is also some dizzying footage shot inside the shuttle's cabin, as astronauts float about their business. There is the inevitable toying with weightless food, a tiresome quip about how astronauts relieve themselves in zero gravity (the secret is "suction", we're told). And somebody thought ukelele music was about right to accompany parts of this celestial spectacle. But we forgive them.
At least the filmmakers didn't shy away from Hubble's scientific mission. With the magic of 3-D, they take viewers gliding (at a simulated 150 trillion miles per second) across the 1,300 light years of space between Earth and the Orion Nebula (photo, right). Using decades of Hubble images and plenty of computer wizardry, they carry us deep into the roiling nebula, where new stars and entire solar systems are being forged.
Later, we're flown out of the nebula, and across our spiral Milky Way galaxy, and then up and away across intergalactic space to our sister spiral galaxy, called Andromeda. Next, we're introduced to the "local cluster" of galaxies ours belongs to, which is in turn part of the larger Virgo Cluster. The mind boggles as the film - still with real Hubble images - expands our horizon to take in more clusters and inter-cluster strings of galaxies that make up the "web" of all matter in the universe, and the swarms of raw, misshapen young galaxies Hubble has found at the edges of space and time. Whew!
None of this would have been possible, of course, without the men and women who built and upgraded Hubble, invented repairs and worked around failures to keep it working and even improved it over the last 20 years. More than hardware and glass and computers, Hubble 3-D makes it clear that the space telescope is its people and their genius. And IMAX puts us among them.
For showtimes and tickets, visit http://www.marylandsciencecenter.org/or call 410 685-5225.