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Lights, camera ... Hubble!

Astronaut Drew Feustel looms large as he moves a corrective-optics package from
the Hubble Space Telescope to a stowage position during May's final servicing
mission. This view was captured by the Imax 3-D camera in Atlantis' cargo bay.

"Hubble 3D," due to premiere next March in super-screen Imax theaters, is shaping up as a fitting sendoff for the world's best-known telescope as well as the most complicated flying machine ever built.

Atlantis' trip to the Hubble Space Telescope in May may have marked not only the last time that astronauts put their hands on the crown jewels of NASA's astronomical assets, but also the last opportunity for filming a Hollywood-style production aboard a space shuttle.

"It made me sentimental," admitted Toni Myers, the film's producer, director and editor.

Myers has been involved in half a dozen big-screen space documentaries, including "Hail Columbia!" - which dates back to the dawn of the space shuttle age in 1981. Almost three decades later, "Hubble 3D" may be the last of the breed.

"The film age is definitely pretty much coming to an end," she said. It so happens that the space shuttle age is nearing its end as well. If NASA sticks to its current schedule, the fleet's final flight will take place in the latter part of next year - perhaps just as "Hubble 3D" is coming out on DVD.

Of course, you're missing the whole point if you wait for the DVD. The idea behind Imax 3-D is that you get a seven-story-high view of the cosmos, as seen through polarized glasses that make you feel as if you can reach out and touch the spacesuits.

Myers' 2002 film, "Space Station 3-D," set the precedent for the Hubble epic - but for May's mission, which focused so heavily on five lengthy spacewalks, the Imax camera equipment in Atlantis' cargo bay had to be shrunk to the size of four shoeboxes. That's a particularly stiff challenge because the 70mm Imax film is twice as wide as standard movie film. What's more, the 3-D effect requires the use of a complex lens system that exposes one frame for the left eye, then one frame for the right eye, cycling 24 times a second.

The camera has to push through 672 feet of film for every minute of shooting, and because the remote-controlled camera was shooting in Atlantis' open cargo bay, there's no opportunity for changing film. "That camera takes a single load of film a mile long, and that mile gives us eight minutes," Myers said.

Camera operator Peter Kragh, at left, moves the Imax 3-D camera to film
astronauts Mike Good (foreground) and Mike Massimino (inside a Hubble mockup)
as they rehearse repair procedures underwater at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab in
Houston in April, a month before their flight.

If you have only eight minutes of film to cover an eight-hour spacewalk, you have to choose your shots wisely. So, in the months leading up to the mission, the "Hubble 3D" film crew and Atlantis' space crew meticulously planned a list of shots for each outing.

Shuttle pilot Greg Johnson was put in charge of controlling the cargo bay camera from inside the crew cabin. After taking a look at the footage he shot, he pronounced himself satisfied with his gig as a cinematographer.

"I can tell you I didn't mess it up, I didn't screw it up," he told me last week during a talk at Seattle's Museum of Flight. "That was not a given, because of the changing lighting."

In fact, some of the footage is downright spectacular, Myers said. She marveled over one shot in particular, during which spacewalker Drew Feustel floated right in front of the camera while carrying a huge corrective-optics package away from Hubble. "You can see every stitch in his suit," she said.

You'll see the spacewalkers do their incredibly complex jobs in fine detail and glorious 3-D, against the backdrop of a sparkling telescope and a shining Earth. But you probably won't see a lot of footage about the mission's hairier moments - for example, the time spacewalker Mike Massimino had to wrench off a handrail with his gloved hands to get at an instrument in need of repair.

Although the movie refers to those twists and turns in the mission plan, Myers said she would have required a TV special to delve that deeply into Atlantis' tale. In fact, that's exactly the approach taken in "Hubble's Amazing Rescue," a "Nova" documentary due to premiere on PBS on Oct. 13.

The "Nova" show explains the nuts and bolts of the Atlantis mission - figuratively (by getting into the detailed mechanics behind the problems that spacewalkers encountered) as well as literally (by telling how engineers on Earth created specialized tools to help the spacewalkers unscrew more than 100 tiny screws).

"Hubble 3D" complements "Hubble's Amazing Rescue" by focusing on the big picture. "The main theme is to celebrate Hubble and its legacy - and that legacy is ongoing," Myers said.

To supplement the 3-D views captured during the spacewalk, Myers uses on-the-ground imagery as well as digital video that was taken in 2-D aboard Atlantis - and then converted to synthetic 3-D with Imax's DMR software.

Then there are the 3-D renderings of actual Hubble pictures, which could well outdo the spacewalks when it comes to jaw-dropping cosmic awesomeness. The telescope itself doesn't take 3-D pictures, but Myers' team worked with Hubble's handlers at the Space Telescope Science Institute to add the third dimension to some of the orbiting observatory's greatest hits. The movie will also feature imagery captured after Hubble's upgrade.

Myers said one sequence will take viewers on a 3-D flight from Earth to the Orion Nebula's Trapezium Cluster. Another will zoom out from the Milky Way out to the gobs of galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and from there out to the large-scale cosmic web. This YouTube fly-through of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field hints at what you can expect, but the 3-D effect will give you even more of a sense that you're moving through the universe at warp speed.

Will "Hubble 3-D" be Myers' swan song? Don't count on it: Film cameras may be on the wane, but Myers said professional-quality digital cameras will soon be ready to take their place in space. And even though the shuttle program may be entering its twilight time, Myers still has lots of space visions she'd like to pursue. For example, she's dreaming about a follow-up to "Blue Planet," a 1990 Imax film that featured outer-space imagery of Earth.

"I would dearly love to update that film," Myers said.

What about NASA's program to develop new spacecraft to replace the shuttle? Is there a "Project Constellation 3-D" in the works? Not yet, Myers said. There's still too much about that program that's, well, up in the air.

"For the public, you have to plan some kind of film that has some payoff to it. ... You can't really go shooting footage of some engine test with no hope of resolution," she said.

But when NASA sets a course beyond Earth orbit - whether it's heading to the moon, or Mars, or some other far-off destination - you can bet the 3-D cameras won't be far behind. In fact, virtuality may be the way that most people experience outer space a generation from now. At least that's where Myers is heading with "Hubble 3-D" and her other big-screen movies.

"That's definitely an aim of the films," she said, "to introduce people to the wonders of space, perhaps people who haven't thought about it before."

More 3-D delights:

Imax and Warner Bros. Pictures are due to bring out "Hubble 3-D" on March 19, 2010.

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