In May 2009, a crew of seven astronauts took off on the Space Shuttle Atlantis on a fourth and final mission to repair and service the Hubble Space Telescope, the renowned Earth-orbiting eye in the sky that has sent back two decades of spectacular images of the universe.
The astronauts on board the Atlantis would give the telescope an "extreme makeover," with new instruments and improved cameras, over the course of five space walks.
Astronaut Gregory Johnson had the added task of documenting it all—with a 700 pound IMAX camera. In the months leading up to the mission, IMAX director and producer Toni Myers trained Johnson in the art of collecting audio, video and stills within the shuttle's cabin, while also operating the IMAX camera using a specially programmed laptop computer.
In the completed film, Hubble 3D, which recently premiered at the National Air and Space Museum's Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, a spectacular range of images—Helix Nebula surrounded by sparkling red and purple gases or the butterfly shape of a dying star—taken by the telescope itself are made all the more realistic as they fly by the viewers 3D glasses. But a significant portion of the film was captured by Johnson, striking footage of astronauts floating against the earth's deep blue oceans and wispy white clouds, trying to repair the Hubble.
Along with camera training, Myers coached Johnson through the shots she wanted. As the astronauts practiced their space walks underwater, in a 6 million gallon pool at the Johnson Space Center, Myers learned the walks along with them, developing a running scene list that would go with Johnson to space. They began with a list of about 60 scenes, which was narrowed down to 15 or 16 by the time the mission took off. Once the crew was in space, Myers reviewed what Johnson captured each day from the mission control room, and sent comments to him through e-mail about what more she needed, or what could be improved.
Johnson is no stranger to flying. Before he became an astronaut in 1998, he was a test pilot for NASA and a captain in the United States Navy, racking up more than 9,500 flying hours in 50 different aircraft, and successfully completing more than 500 carrier landings. But when it came time to prepare for his first mission as an astronaut in May 2009, on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, he knew almost nothing about operating a camera.
“I can tell you I didn’t have any video training before this,” Johnson said, laughing. “They took a navy test pilot and turned him into a director of photography ... sort of. A big sort of there.”
Though the camera contained 5,000 feet—nearly a mile—of film, it only amounted to eight minutes of tape that Johnson couldn’t rewind, which meant he had little room for error when he captured scenes, about 20 or 30 seconds at a time. The camera was mounted in the spacecraft’s payload bay, protected by a shield, and Johnson controlled the lens and the shutter with a laptop. He had to orchestrate scenes without interfering with the astronauts' important rescue mission and also battle short cycles of light. The Atlantis orbited Earth every 90 minutes, which meant Johnson only had 45 minutes of light to shoot before the spacecraft was overtaken by another 45 minutes of darkness.
"It was a stressful situation to decide when to shoot," Johnson said. “It was a balancing act of competing priorities and we were able to pull it off, but at times it was a bit of a stress because I didn’t know when the scenes were going to occur."
In addition to capturing what happened outside the Atlantis, Johnson made videos of the astronauts inside the spacecraft, anchoring himself with foot loops to film his crew through tense rescue moments—a kind of voyeur's visit aboard the shuttle, as the camera documents the astronauts even as they made sandwiches on pieces of bread that floated in the air; and got in and out of their spacesuits.
“It was extremely hectic and the scenes were shot on the fly, mainly because each time the space walkers came in the door we had to get them out of their suits and get them fed. Then, everyone participated in turning the suits around to be used for the next space walk,” Johnson said. “There was just no time to sit down and compose scenes, so it was shot kind of like your home movies to a certain extent.”
But those “home movies,” combined with Hubble images both old and new, offer those who see the film a look into space many have never seen before, giving a glimpse into both the perspective of the astronauts, as well as the stunning views of space and the earth.
While Myers coached the astronauts, she said in return she also learned from them, evolving into somewhat of an amateur astronomer over the course of production.
“It is just mind boggling,” she said. “It gets into your blood stream and just stays there.”
It also turned Johnson into somewhat of an amateur filmmaker.
“I’d be happy to do another IMAX movie,” he said. “It was an amazing mission, the crew was really fun to fly with. And if you don’t wonder what’s out there, that movie should make you wonder.”
Hubble 3D is on view at the National Air and Space Museum; tickets can be purchased here, or by calling 866-868-7774 (toll-free) and 202 633-8850 (TTY) . To find other venues nationwide, visit the film's Web site.