The Hubble Space Telescope orbits 350 miles (560 km) above us. Its beautiful photographs have made it the link between the people of Earth and the cosmos of which we are a small part.
Hubble came of age in April 2011 – twenty-one years in space! Its long life was possible only because of space shuttle missions servicing it. Since the shuttle program ended in July 2011, the 2009 Atlantis mission was the last ever such visit. Among other things, the crew took a new wide field camera and replaced the gyros needed to position the telescope. But there was another important camera on board: an IMAX camera.
Hubble the movie was produced and directed by veteran IMAX film maker Toni Meyers. The director of photography is award-winning cinematographer James Neihouse who has also trained over a hundred astronauts and cosmonauts to film in space. The crew of Atlantis did the space photography. Leonardo Di Caprio narrates.
There are three basic parts to the film: (1) introducing the shuttle crew and showing some of the mission preparation, (2) the crew in space, including the work on the telescope, and (3) a sequence created by astronomers and visualizers at the Space Telescope Science Institute, using data from Hubble.
One of the movie's most memorable images for me was Earth as the backdrop to the telescope in Atlantis's cargo bay. Magnificent.
The 3D IMAX format was a winner throughout, giving the feeling of being right where things were happening. (I wonder how much is lost in the DVD.) Cameras mounted on helmets took us almost claustrophobically into the action during the repairs. One job required removing over a hundred small screws and was likened to "performing brain surgery wearing oven gloves". By the way, if being an astronaut seems glamorous, just think of being in a spacesuit for eight hours without being able to scratch an itch.
The only really original part of the movie was a sequence of 3D animations created using the data from the Hubble cameras, including the new one that the Atlantis crew had installed.
This allowed us to defy the prohibition of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity against exceeding the speed of light as we zoomed 1500 light years through space to the Orion Nebula. There we flew through a nebular canyon 90 trillion miles across, surrounded by stellar nurseries, and saw the seeds of future solar systems. As if that weren't enough, the journey continued beyond the Milky Way, deep into space, past thousands of galaxies whose light had been traveling for five billion years before our Solar System even existed.
This is a matter of opinion. Personally, I didn't feel that I needed to get to know the astronauts and would have liked more Hubble images. More importantly, I found the narration overblown. DiCaprio struck an appropriate note of awed enthusiasm, but isn't a picture supposed to be worth a thousand words? The pictures were already great, so I thought fewer words would have done.
Overall I felt this was a great tribute to the Hubble Space Telescope, showing what it's given us and the importance of the astronauts who maintained it over the years. The first part dragged a bit, but the visualization sequences alone would make it worth seeing.
For families and educators wanting to take children, I recommend it, even though I can tell you from experience it may not be a hit with everyone. I've taken children aged 12-14 and got a mixed – though generally positive – response. The pupils loved the 3D effects, especially the opening titles where stars seem to come out of the screen. The astronauts aboard the shuttle were popular, except they found the repair sequences "boring". Even those whose English is fluent didn't like the narration: "too much talking". The visualization sequence was also popular.
If you have a planetarium or science center within visiting distance, you are most likely to be able to see the film. Very few strictly commercial IMAX theaters show it.
There is some material that educators may find useful on the Hubble 3D website. Click on "skip to site" when the countdown stops. There is a trailer for the film, pictures and under "Videos" there is a set of "webisodes". These are short videos with behind-the-scenes material which are quite interesting. I'd recommend these even if you can't see the film.
Update: There is still some educational material on the site, but the webisodes are no longer there.
Hubble 3D (2010), directed by Toni Myers, rated U, 44 minutes.
NOTE: I first saw this film at its European premiere, in my professional capacity as an educator, as a guest of the Science Museum in London.