The Right Stuff
Astronauts don't get nervous. Like firefighters, police officers and Mariah Carey's publicist, they exhibit unblinking courage when most mortals would cower. Such fearlessness is necessary during re-entry when a space shuttle is traveling 5 miles per second and ripping electrons in the rarefied gases above the planet, causing the plasma field around the shuttle to flash and glow orange-red with hellish heat. Astronauts remain calm during this time instead of weeping uncontrollably, as we would do.
To suggest then that Colonel Brian Duffy was "nervous" when he made the half-hour drive from Houston to Galveston's IMAX 3D theater at Moody Gardens would be silly. Yes, he was going to view his attempt at becoming a NASA version of Quentin Tarantino, his first test as he prepared to lead a shuttle mission that would be a centerpiece for the new IMAX film Space Station 3D. But this is a man who lands shuttle orbiters traveling 235 mph. He was not nervous. He allows only that he may have experienced a sense of "keen anticipation."
Semantics aside, mission commander Duffy's feeling of non-calm was a result of the extra training he was undergoing for his upcoming assignment, in which he and his crew would pilot an important payload aboard the space shuttle. The additional training, though, was a six-month crash course in three-dimensional filmmaking, since his crew would film a portion of the upcoming IMAX 3D film. Any trepidation felt would be understandable--in space, no one can hear you scream, and no one can see what you're shooting if the lens is out of focus.
"Of course, the success of the mission had nothing to do with IMAX," Duffy says. "That said, as a part of the mission, we really wanted to be successful with the movie. It was important to them [the filmmakers], to NASA and to us. We helped tell the story."
The story Duffy and his crew told was that of shuttle mission STS-92, in which the IMAX cameras show us the installation of the International Space Station's "backbone" (a.k.a. the Z1 truss), as well as the crew's three space walks to install a communications antenna and the interestingly named pressurized mating adapter. Theirs is one of several missions that make up the cinematic journey captured by IMAX in striking 3D. The space station itself, although not complete until 2006, is already a stunning achievement, given that its construction is a cooperative effort of 16 nations that share hopes of studying, among other things, the totally excellent coolness of long-duration exposure to zero gravity.
The challenge for the astronauts-turned-filmmakers is simple: It's not as though they can shoot the mission in the same fashion you shoot your tyke's birthday party. When your camera is specially designed for this mission, and your 3D film zips through at 11 feet per second (twice as fast as normal film), and each roll only holds 108 seconds of images, nothing can be wasted. Every shot counts. Which, again, when you're dealing with people who are, oh, let's say, building a space station--well, they can probably handle tight editing demands.
"These are astronauts," says Space Station 3D producer Toni Myers. "They're already highly smart and technical. We just work to make them proficient...You can tell when they've got it. By the time they shoot a roll [of film], you know they know what it's all about."
The crew got its report card about six weeks after the mission. Good news, Myers said. It's all in focus. As filmmakers, they have the right stuff.
"In fact," Myers says now, "to make a bad pun, the finished film is simply over the moon. I just think it's inspiring. I know kids will love it. I think they'll all want to go to space."
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