Double Feature

Events of January 30, 2013

In my archeology class dealing with "The Contested Past", we had a fascinating discussion a few weeks ago. We were supposed to list places and artifacts we considered important to our cultural heritage as citizens of our home countries and compare our lists with students from the same country to see if we'd named the same things.

I answered that after recently visiting the renovated Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, it seemed to me that the National Parks system was a collection of such places for the United States. Other students from the US named Ellis Island, Independence Hall, Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, and Washington DC. After one student named Pearl Harbor and the site of the World Trade Center, our professor discussed the idea of "shared tragedy" as an element of cultural heritage.

That reminded me of something I'd seen over the summer, so I raised my hand.

"In the Capitol, there's this area called the Brumidi Corridors, where the ceilings are painted with different places in the US or scenes from history. The artist left some spaces blank in the 1800s so that people could paint events that happened later that they thought were important. And there have been some paintings added since then, and I think that it fits with what you're saying that the last one to be added shows the Space Shuttle Challenger crew." I said "But it's interesting to me that because I was born after that accident happened, the painting may already mean something different to me than it does to someone who was alive at the time."

The professor agreed, and someone else raised his or her hand. But I started thinking about the fact that it was already late January and "Remembrance Week", the anniversary of the Challenger accident and two other disasters in space exploration, wasn't too far away. Being a space enthusiast, I had observed the Challenger anniversary several times in the past, as well as the anniversary of the earlier Apollo 1 fire, and I planned on doing the same thing this year.

But Remembrance Week would be different this year, because February 1st, 2013, would mark the tenth anniversary of NASA's most recent accident, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. And, like I said last year, the loss of the Shuttle Columbia will always hold special significance for me because I was alive when it happened and because I can remember. I can remember seeing the news footage of the shuttle disintegrating on re-entry, I can remember seeing the headlines in newspapers and reading about it in Scholastic News and Time for Kids for the next few weeks, I can remember the flags being at half-mast. And I can remember two years later when the space shuttle returned to flight and missions resumed.

I can remember all of this because I was just a few weeks short of being 10-years-old on the day of the accident, and I was 12-years-old when the Return to Flight mission occurred. And even though I do look back and find some things I did or said at those ages silly in retrospect, for the most part I think that at ten and certainly at twelve, I was reasonably mature and intelligent. I had a mind that was much the same as the mind I have now, even if my mind now contains far more information.

And so it's kind of shocking to think that anything from a time I can remember so well and that seems so recent could be a whole decade ago. (But not nearly as shocking as the related fact that in less than days I will be twenty. *blinks rapidly and shakes head*)

It was true--I had been nearly ten then, and now I was nearly twenty. Half of my life had gone by. But the fact that I was now an adult space enthusiast meant that I had opportunities to honor the Columbia astronauts that I hadn't had when I was almost-ten. Last year, I'd put extra effort into my explaining at the Boston University Astronomical Society's Public Night. This year, February 1st fell on Friday, not Wednesday, the day our club meets, and the sky was cloudy on Wednesday the 30th, so I wasn't sure what I could do.

But on Monday night, the president of our club e-mailed me saying that since it was cloudy and the last day of the month, he wanted to play a movie at the meeting. Because of the proximity to the Challenger and Columbia anniversaries, he wanted some suggestions for a space-shuttle-related movie. I wrote back that I had the IMAX movies Hail Columbia! and The Dream is Alive on DVD in my dorm room and that I could bring either one. He asked me to bring both, so I did.

We started with Hail Columbia! because it was chronologically first, covering STS-1, the 1981 first mission of the Shuttle Columbia and of the space shuttle program. I'd bought it at Space Camp a few years before and watched after buying, but I hadn't seen it since, so it felt good to "rediscover" the film without knowing every little detail of what was coming next.

Hail Columbia! captures a moment in time--the beginning of the space shuttle era. The film's score, the outfits and hairstyles of the spectators and Flight Controllers, shuttle pilot Robert Crippen's heavy tan, and the recorded message from Ronald Reagan that plays before the first launch attempt leave no doubt that this is April, 1981. True to the transitional nature of the flight shown, the movie looks both back at the prior achievements in spaceflight that STS-1 built upon and forward to the coming capabilities of the shuttle.

The call-backs are appropriately mostly early in the film--STS-1 commander John Young being informed that the Space Shuttle program has been approved by Congress while bouncing around on the moon during Apollo 16, a sequence of astronauts Young and Crippen flying their T-38 training jets that recalls the earlier IMAX film To Fly! (which ended with the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the last NASA human spaceflight before STS-1), Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz watching Columbia's launch in Mission Control. (The one exception is a scene of the crew riding in a ticker-tape parade in Chicago after landing, unexpectedly amusing to a room full of space fans raised hearing the complaint that "Space shuttle astronauts don't get parades!")

We like to separate the Apollo and Shuttle eras in our mind (and the five-year interregnum period without crewed flights makes it easy to), but in 1981, Apollo was still part of recent memory, with many key players like Young and Kranz still working at NASA.

But at the same time, Hail Columbia! also shows that something new has arrived--the triumphant shots of the shuttle's liftoff are still awe-inspiring, reinforcing the sense that even though space enthusiasts now know the steps of a shuttle launch by heart, during THIS mission, each of them was new and never-before-seen-or-heard. All of us at BUAS cheered along with the spectators on the ground.

I'd forgotten that a scene early in the film of Crippen and Young answering questions from reporters before launch featured a very long sequence where they discussed the possibility of damage to the tiles protecting the shuttle during the heat of re-entry. When the film was produced, in 1982, this was just the director's way of amping up the drama of the flight, but knowing that it would be similar damage that would destroy the Columbia twenty-odd years later made the scene seem very different. Most of us in the room awkwardly looked at each other or at the floor until that part was over--it was just too harsh in retrospect.

But the film also features more positive "call-forwards"--discussions of how "in future flights" the space shuttle could be used to launch, build space stations, and deploy orbiting space telescopes--prophesy at the time of the movie's release, but proven history to us watching now.

Watching the landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, I found myself repeating the air-to-ground communications word-for-word because I'd had the STS-1 landing audio as my ringtone for several months last year. ("Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful!" "You want us to take it up to the hangar, Joe?" "We're gonna dust it off first.")

And with the landing scene, it's clear that a new era has arrived. Young and Crippen climb out to meet their wives and address the crowd, and celebration surrounds the landing strip. After the aforementioned unexpected parade, the film ends with a scene that no documentary about a prior space vehicle could have had--the Columbia launching again after being "dusted off", returning to orbit on STS-2. This isn't anything you've seen before--this is a reusable spacecraft! It proclaimed, the perfect note on which to end the film. The space shuttle is here.

Immediately afterwards, the boy whose laptop was connected to the projector ejected Hail Columbia! and popped in the DVD for The Dream is Alive. And while I'd never watched the two films back-to-back before, now I can't imagine any better way of viewing them. The very title of the later film comes from a comment given by Commander Young after the STS-1 landing, a comment we hear in those final moments of Hail Columbia! : "The dream is alive again".

I first saw The Dream is Alive at Space Camp, during my first summer of Advanced Space Academy, and I didn't go in with very high hopes based on what my councilors had told us--it was filmed long before the construction of the International Space Station, it featured astronauts who had died in the Challenger disaster, etc. But I was wrong. Space Station and Hubble 3-D are excellent documentaries about the ISS and Hubble and the shuttle's role in servicing them, but when it comes to an IMAX film ONLY about the space shuttle itself, The Dream is Alive is still the best there is. (It's been described as "the next best thing to being there", but I wouldn't know, because I've never been in orbit!)

It's incredible right from the very start--the credits are shown in sky blue against a black background as the cries of seabirds echo. The film's name appears, and then we see to a quiet scene of the swamps around the Kennedy Space Center, tinged pink and gold by the sunrise, with alligators and herons going about their business. The bird calls continue to echo. Watching in a theater, you wonder if you haven't accidentally stumbled into the wrong IMAX showing and caught a nature documentary instead. ("This isn't space!" One of the BUAS members muttered.)

And then... BOOM-BOOM! A sound like thunder interrupts the bird calls, causing some of the birds sitting on a small swamp island to fly away, and we cut to...the view from the cockpit of a space shuttle coming in for landing, with the Florida coast visible, lit up in the same sunrise. Dramatic music begins and we hear a Flight Controller's voice: "Sonic booms just heard at the Kennedy Space Center." The commander's voice bleeds in, acknowledging the call, and the music builds, as the cockpit view continues...

Magic. Just magic.

And that sense of magic and awe and excitement continues throughout the next 36 minutes of the movie. It mixes footage from three different shuttle missions, excellent music, and Walter Cronkite's fantastic narration to create a documentary that's intelligent, artistic, and pretty close to utter perfection. (There are very few people in the world who can narrate like Mr. Cronkite could--the emotions start with his very first words in that opening scene: "At the end of a three-million mile journey, the space shuttle is coming home...")

As The Dream is Alive opens, we're a few years down the line, in 1984, and Robert Crippen, who we last saw as John Young's co-pilot, is commanding shuttle missions of his own, teaching the ropes to newcomers Jon McBride and Dick Scobee. It's a nice unintentional "character arc" of sorts across the two films. (The third mission featured in the film is STS-41-D, commanded by Henry Hartsfield.) The predictions made in the previous film are slowly coming true--the crews of these missions live in space for longer periods, launch an Earth-monitoring satellite, repair a damaged sun-observing satellite, and test an expandable solar array similar to the ones currently in use on the International Space Station. Current NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan makes the first spacewalk by an American woman, and George Nelson and James "Ox" van Hoften use Manned Maneuvering Unit jetpacks to do an untethered spacewalk. (The consensus among those of us watching was that this was both "the most terrifying thing in the world if something went wrong" and "the freest form of flight any human has ever experienced".)

But the film also has lighter moments--the astronauts play with their food, exercise, wave through the windows at their colleagues inside when spacewalking, and tap on the glass of a beehive experiment to see how the bees react. (Thank goodness they didn't get loose!)

However, some of my favorite parts of the film are a sequence of geographic features as seen from orbit, identified by Cronkite. He could very easily have only identified each place briefly, but instead, he gives historical and cultural information that gives a sense of space exploration as an expansion not just of human technology, but of human culture. Not just "Here is Italy" or "Here is Greece", but: "As we cross the Alps into Italy, on the left is Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Eastward, the Po River flows into the Adriatic, and just north of its mouth, glorious Venice. This is the Italy of the Renaissance.", and "We pass over Crete, the cradle of the ancient Minoan civilization..." With no astronauts in-frame as surrogates, these are the shots that best create the sense of YOU being in space, witnessing these sights with your own eyes.

The final words of the film call back to that sequence, and are an appropriate coda to both the events of the movie and the shuttle program as a whole: "Like Columbus, we dream of distant shores we've not yet seen. Now that we know how to live and work in space, we stand at the threshold of a new age of discovery."

I walked back home from the meeting with my spirits buoyed -- it was hard not to be, after that double-feature! Neither film had dealt directly with the shuttle accidents, because both had been made before either one. But they showed the spirit that had driven the Columbia and Challenger crews and the joys of outer space that had been so appealing to them. They hadn't been satisfied with "the next best thing to being there" where there was the possibility of actually being there themselves and taking part in those adventures. To them, outer space, for all its dangers, wasn't scary or sad, it was beautiful and exciting -- just like we'd seen.

The words on the Apollo 1 memorial plaque seemed appropriate: "Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived."