When astronauts began leaving Earth, the first new world they visited was kind of disappointing: the barren, lifeless moon. Yet space exploration is slowly revealing the discovery "of an entirely new planet . . . a sometimes turbulent planet" teeming with life forms which seem oddly intent upon fouling their beautiful home."
Welcome to "Blue Planet," a sweeping, environmentally sensitive film opening today at the Maryland Science Center's IMAX theater. The "new" planet in question, of course, is our own Mother Earth, as photographed from hundreds of miles above by astronauts aboard a succession of space shuttle craft.
"Only a few hundred people have actually seen Planet Earth from space," says the film's narration. But we can be grateful they have taken along cameras to allow the rest of us to share that view. It reveals our little orb to be an awesome, life-giving machine which is paradoxically fragile.
"Blue Planet's" debut in Baltimore today marks the first public display of the film, a co-production of the Smithsonian Institution and NASA which will be on display here until April. Astronaut Stephen Oswald, currently in training for a future mission, will make a public appearance at the center at 1:45 p.m. today as part of opening day activities devoted to space exploration. (The local opening is being called a "preview" rather than a "world premiere," with that term reserved for the film's debut next month at Washington's National Air and Space Museum.)
"In general, we've been trying to chronicle people going out into space . . . [and] you learn rather quickly that we live on a rather small planet in a great black void in space," says producer Graeme Ferguson, co-founder of IMAX systems Inc., in a telephone interview. The new film grew from his earlier "The Dream Is Alive," which dealt with early space shuttle missions. ("Blue Planet" replaces that film and an earlier space feature, "Hail Columbia," in the center's daily screenings.)
"We saw in 'Dream' that the scenes of Earth from space were particularly interesting to the audience," says Ferguson. Thus "Blue Planet" includes longer and more frequent shuttle views, often lasting the full three-minute capacity of the IMAX camera which astronauts were trained to operate.
Viewers may find themselves mesmerized as they make out the shape of Florida, with the Keys sweeping off to the left under an array of fleecy clouds. We see the towering Himalayas from above, looking more like a palette-knife oil painting, and gaze along with astronaut Charlie Bolden as he photographs the nighttime flash of thunderstorms on the surface, likening them to bursts of music.
Indeed, viewers may wish for even longer scenes, as well as an instructor with a long pointer to help pick out recognizable land forms and surface features.
In its early stages, the 42-minute "Blue Planet" documents how the Earth works as a life-support system. It draws an obvious analogy between a space shuttle's air filtration system and the planet's cleansing hydrologic cycle of rain and evaporation.
The space material is interspersed with terrestrial scenes, some of which are extremely powerful here. For instance, a mountain thunderstorm fills the theater with light and sound, if not actually rain, and a split-screen sequence of Hurricane Hugo vividly conveys the power of our planet's workings.
We also learn about internal forces, with a quick primer on volcanoes and the science of plate tectonics, which has proved the Earth's land masses are still in motion. A striking computer animation sequence traces California's San Andreas fault and dramatically shows how last year's serious earthquake in San Francisco occurred.
The scene looks like ripples on a pond spreading outward from a dropped pebble, and Ferguson says the short sequence -- it is seen in the same time span as the actual earthquake -- was developed with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, "as far as I know has never been seen anywhere."
In its latter stages, "Blue Planet" takes on a hard edge, as writer (and narrator) Toni Myers' script introduces "a new force as threatening as any in nature . . . what we are doing to the planet."
The high aerials show pesticides leeching into the Gulf of Mexico, pollution fouling the Yangtze River in China, chemical-rich sediment choking the Betsiboka delta in Madagascar and thick smoke spreading across the ocean from the burning of the Amazon rain forests. Terrestrial footage shows smog in Los Angeles and Paris and Tokyo.
"We are conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the Earth's life support systems," contends the script.
And in an interview, writer/editor Myers notes that some of the astronauts helped select some of the scenes to photograph, stemming from their own concerns and observations. They also carried "a shopping list of Earth sites we wanted them to shoot," she says.