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Bringing Spaceflight Down to Earth

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Having grown up less than 90 minutes away from the famous Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, I got the chance at least a few times each summer to see an IMAX movie. I remember the packed seats for the pre-show, everyone clamoring for the best seats right in the middle, but everyone was usually just happy to be escaping the heat for the air conditioned theater. When The Dream Is Alive was released in June 1985, I was just old enough to ride those massive roller coasters, but seeing IMAX films at Cedar Point really left an impression on me: a big impression. Seeing those sweeping views of Earth and space on a gigantic screen made spaceflight seem so real, and utterly amazing.

hubble

Figure 1 – The release of the Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the IMAX payload bay camera on STS-31, April 25, 1990.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that as soon as I became the Museum’s curator for space cameras about seven years ago, I distinctly remember asking about the chance IMAX cameras might join our collection. Valerie Neal, our curator for the space shuttle, was my target, and her enthusiasm for that possibility mirrored my own. During her time at the Museum, a number of the films premiered here, and she had gotten to know IMAX co-inventor/director/producer Graeme Ferguson and Toni Myers, another IMAX writer/director/producer. She had already started planting the idea of an eventual donation, suggesting to them at each opportunity that the Museum would be really interested in acquiring one of the cameras when they were no longer needed. I even remember anxiously waiting to hear from her the day after Hubble 3D premiered at the Museum in 2010, hoping she had put in another good word for National Air and Space Museum with Toni or Graeme. Valerie’s hard work paid off, and just a last year, we finalized arrangements to bring not one but two IMAX cameras — the two-dimensional in-cabin and payload bay units — into the National Collection.

Carl Walz

Figure 2 – Astronaut Carl Walz with the IMAX in-cabin camera during STS-79, September 1996.

Astronaut Michael Collins, the founding director of the National Air and Space Museum when it opened to the public in 1976, first suggested putting an IMAX camera on the shuttle five years before the first launch. He and Graeme Ferguson, and then Collins’ successor as Museum director Walter Boyne, nurtured the idea along until NASA granted approval in 1983. The partnership between IMAX Corporation, the Museum, NASA, and sponsor Lockheed Corporation was so successful that five more jointly-produced films followed The Dream is Alive. These films effectively brought spaceflight down to Earth as an immersive experience for audiences around the world.

Jennifer Levasseur is a museum specialist in the Division of Space History and curator for the Museum’s collection of space cameras and astronaut personal equipment.

Valerie Neal, also in the Division of Space History, is the space shuttle curator.

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