Lights, Camera, Cosmos

Baltimore-based scientists were a guiding force behind the new IMAX spectacle 'Hubble 3D'

  • Standing near a model of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will go up in four years, John Grunsfeld is a former astronaut who flew five space shuttle missions.
Standing near a model of the James Webb Space Telescope, which… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
April 04, 2010|By Michael Sragow | | Sun Movie Critic

"Hubble 3D," a celebration of the orbiting space telescope and the NASA crew that gave it new life last year, provides a glimpse of how star systems looked a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. It reveals the borders of the visible universe. It drinks in the spectacle of celestial bodies born in fiery pillars of clouds.

The content is scientific. The imagery gets biblical. In fact, after Baltimore-based astronaut John Grunsfeld witnessed a positive power check on a Hubble camera he'd installed, he said, "Let there be light."

The beauty is sometimes so overwhelming and unexpected that it's equally sublime and absurd. It's fitting that "Hubble 3D" follows "Alice in Wonderland" as a 3-D live-action event at the Maryland Science Center this Friday. Lewis Carroll parodied "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" when he had the Mad Hatter recite "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat." The universe as seen by Hubble is full of cosmic butterflies and horse's heads, and twinkling bats - great big ones.

Toni Myers, the director of "Hubble 3D," says the movie developed out of a meeting she had with Grunsfeld, now the deputy director of Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

In 2006, Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist as well as an astronaut, was a man with a two-pronged cause. First he aimed to persuade NASA to mount a full-scale makeover for the Hubble telescope. Then he hoped to pack a 3-D IMAX camera system on the space shuttle Atlantis for the whole epochal ride.

Myers and Grunsfeld reconnoitered at an Einstein Bros. Bagels shop in Houston. (Has a meeting place ever sounded quite so apt?) As Myers says, it was "one of those meetings where you write the story on a napkin in a coffee shop."

From java-stained paper, one of the mightiest IMAX films has grown. The flesh-and-metal adventure comes from the ultimate retrofit of Hubble. Launched in 1990 with a minuscule flaw in its primary mirror, Hubble received its first corrective lenses in 1993. Mission STS-125 was the fifth orbiting house call on Hubble. At one point, we watch Grunsfeld, the most space-experienced of the seven-person crew, help install a revamped wide-field camera on an extended spacewalk.

Grunsfeld's vision, right at the beginning, was to contrast brilliant space cowboys performing the equivalent of "brain surgery" with the end results of Hubble's wizardry: "Wonderful scenes of flying into spaces where planets and stars are formed." He loves the "visceral feeling" that "Hubble 3D" evokes for traveling in space and time, whether toward brave new worlds or the beginnings of the cosmos.

Now engaged in education, public outreach and strategic planning at STSI, Grunsfeld sees "Hubble 3D" as a chance to excite generations who have registered declining interest in science, technology, engineering and math. "Our space program is very important to this country technologically, but it's also very important inspirationally."

Although Myers had collaborated often with NASA and trained dozens of astronauts to film bits of previous missions, she zeroed in on Grunsfeld because he was a good friend of a trusted collaborator, Baltimore-born astronaut Marsha Ivins. "Marsha did two wonderful things," Myers says. "She introduced me to [NASA administrator] Mike Griffin and told me to sit down with John."

Griffin has been dubbed "the savior" of Hubble. After the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, Griffin's predecessor canceled existing plans to service Hubble and gave the telescope low priority. But Griffin, in his first year as NASA administrator, announced a new Hubble mission and proclaimed that it would go "as flawlessly as any of us can imagine." Griffin also found funds within NASA to put the camera in the flight plan.

In his office at STSI, Grunsfeld explains that for five months, from April to August of 2006, he worked full time with mission manager Chuck Shaw on the overarching narrative: "If NASA were to go back to Hubble, how could we do it and optimize the safety?" They had to answer to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and to NASA management.

Grunsfeld recalls, "I started thinking about 'story' a great deal; that's a deliberate word. Because what we were presenting was a narrative: a technical narrative in great detail." It covered everything from the makeup of the management team to the scientific grounds for manned space flight. "This is what it is, this is how risky it is, this is how much it costs, and this is what we get for it."

He began to envision the STS-125 mission as the pinnacle of the whole Hubble saga, from the telescope's launch in 1990 to the succession of "people in suits riding to the rescue. They even happen to be white suits, like in Westerns - women and men in white suits, doing space walks to repair the telescope."

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