A journey into space

I recently went along on an Atlantis Space Shuttle mission to do maintenance on the Hubble telescope so that it could keep peering into the farthest reaches of outer space.

Well, not really.

But it sure felt like I was there as I watched a 3-D film about Atlantis' May voyage to the famed telescope that orbits Earth.

If you're planning a trip anytime soon to Northern Oregon, make a detour to the world-class Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, a town about the size of Ashland that's about 35 miles southwest of Portland. The museum is showing the film "Hubble 3D" in its IMAX theater, which boasts a screen six stories high and seven stories wide.

As you enter the theater, you'll receive a pair of clear glasses to view the film. There's no hassling with those flimsy, cardboard 3-D glasses of yesteryear with their blue and red lenses.

One of the film's opening scenes — astronauts being helped into their spacesuits before boarding Atlantis — would be forgettable in a normal film, but in 3D, they seemed like flesh and blood people whom you could reach out and touch.

Their direct humanity seemed even more touching during the dramatic liftoff of their space shuttle. Tears sprang to my eyes and I felt both fear and awe as I watched roaring flames from the rockets and then a towering column of smoke as the shuttle blasted into the air. It was as if I were in Florida, watching the event happening in real time, with the safety of the astronauts uncertain.

The spring mission to keep Hubble operating into at least 2014 almost didn't happen. The mission had been cancelled after the Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere in 2003. Without maintenance, Hubble would have lost its amazing but fragile ability to capture images of the universe.

Then NASA hatched a plan to have the Endeavor Space Shuttle on standby to rescue the Atlantis crew in space if Atlantis sustained any damage during its liftoff.

One of the most vertigo-inducing scenes in "Hubble 3D" is an image about that escape plan. Astronauts would have had to shimmy down a robotic arm connecting Atlantis to Endeavor. Think of firefighters going down a long pole, except that the pole is 350 miles above the Earth's surface and orbiting at 17,500 mph.

During the mission to work on Hubble, astronauts wielded 3-D cameras that captured the beauty of the Earth in the background, with views of their crewmates out on space walks to service the telescope. One bump to a gyroscope would have ruined its ability to aim the telescope with such precision that it's like standing with a laser light in Ashland and targeting a dime in Portland.

Accidentally tear your spacesuit glove on a sharp electronic circuit board, and all your life-giving air will pour out into space.

In the theater, my kids kept trying to grab onto the tethers that kept the astronauts from drifting off into space.

Of course, "Hubble 3D" also had breathtaking scenes of stars being born in vast dust clouds, dying stars shooting off waves of multicolored light, early galaxies still in amorphous shapes and beautifully complex, fully formed galaxies. Stars and galaxies fly by your head, and the 3-D technology allows you to see how galaxies are arranged in interconnected webs.

But for me, at least, it was the human element that made "Hubble 3D" so memorable.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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