A narrow tunnel closes in on you. You squeeze your way through an opening that looks no bigger than a doggy door. The tiny room beyond -- that's your destination. But wait, there's another astronaut already there, and you're going to join him. Space may be vast and grand and endless, but as Space Station, the latest IMAX offering at Moody Gardens, makes clear, traveling about in it is still a sardine-can experience for earthlings hauling parts up to the International Space Station.
From opening credits that leave the screen to float around your face to incredibly close-up looks at life aboard a space shuttle and the International Space Station, this is one of the most impressive IMAX films in a long time. In a Being John Malkovich sort of way, you occupy an astronaut's body as he moves through a real honest-to-God spaceship, miles upon miles from Earth.
The astronauts were both camera operators and actors. Twenty-five astronauts and cosmonauts were trained as filmmakers at Johnson Space Center with the help of IMAX, and the 13 miles of raw footage collected by the two space station crews and seven shuttle crews were reviewed on Moody Gardens' screens. Film was shot between December 1998 and August 2001 and includes two separate liftoffs. The Kennedy Space Center mission offers a post-liftoff debris shot guaranteed to have you flinching in your seat; the one from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome is chiefly notable for how close civilians are allowed to get to the departing cosmonauts. Film crews had just a few days after each mission to work with the foreign astronauts on their voice-overs before they returned home.
Bill Shepherd, a veteran of four space flights and commander of the International Space Station crew from October 31, 2000, to March 21, 2001, was on hand for an early showing of the movie, attended by area schoolchildren. He reminded them that there are still people living in space, referring to them as "extraterrestrials" because "they don't live on Earth anymore." Shepherd himself has logged about 160 days as an extraterrestrial.
While all of the action in the film is real -- with the exception of one spell of virtual-reality training -- that doesn't mean it was unrehearsed.
After setting up floodlights, sound and making sure the camera was right, said Shepherd, "we had to get the actors in the scene, we had to practice." Filming a scene could take two hours -- sometimes tough to fit in with all their other duties.
Ninety percent of the film the astronauts shot was good, said Paul Jaeger, chief projectionist at Moody. "Astronauts are real competitive. Each group would try to do better than the one before."
In the end, it's what the astronauts do so well that is just as impressive as all the special effects. What the viewer is left with is a sense of their incredible courage as they pack into tiny spaces and hurl themselves across the void to live in a space station whose fragile hold on life could be interrupted at any moment.