'Saving Hubble' shows off the stars

'Saving Hubble'

'Saving Hubble' (October 18, 2012)

As the avuncular host of "NOVA ScienceNOW" on PBS, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the few astrophysicists who is recognized outside of scientific circles. It's no accident that he has made so many appearances on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." He is witty and smart — but most importantly, he eschews jargon for regular talk. (His Twitter feed is pretty droll as well.)

It is fitting, then, that his voice is the first one you hear in the documentary "Saving Hubble," which screens this weekend in Oak Park and Crestwood. For a few years, the telescope's fate looked dire. NASA canceled all repair missions indefinitely in 2004. And without maintenance, the telescope would be useless.

Tyson lays out exactly why this be would be such a loss: "I don't know of a culture that didn't spend some part of its life looking up and wondering: What is our place in the universe? Where did it all come from? Where is it all going? We live in a time where real answers to those questions are possible."

Launched into space in 1990 (where it malfunctioned until a repair mission in 1993), the Hubble Telescope is one of the more remarkable scientific instruments of our lifetime. But it also has needed regular servicing trips.

That wasn't an issue until 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its re-entry into the atmosphere, killing seven astronauts. Shortly thereafter, Sean O'Keefe, the head of NASA at the time, scrapped the upcoming shuttle mission to the telescope. O'Keefe had a reputation as a bean counter, but the mission had already been paid for: He said his reasons were based on risk.

"On a whim, I decided I would go to a hearing in Washington and just see what was being said about Hubble," filmmaker David Gaynes told me when I reached him by phone. "And the more I learned, the more I realized it was a really poor decision. It was the wrong decision. And it prompted a huge outrage from the general public. Hubble was one of the few things that NASA did that the public knew or really cared about.

"The success of Hubble is born out from the fact that people have actually heard of it."

That's a low bar, I countered. "It is, but if a telescope has achieved that level of cultural notoriety, then that's significant," Gaynes said. "And if you look under the hood at the things Hubble has done, it is the most profound shift in our understanding of the universe since Galileo. It has opened up different fields of astronomy that didn't exist prior to its launch in 1990."

In the film, Gaynes talks with astronauts and astronomers, as well as those who designed and built the telescope. "I used to like Chivas Regal," an engineer says, recalling his drink of choice as he worked on the first blueprints. "It, uh, freed my mind up from a lot of other things." Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin offers a brief but telling criticism of NASA, which he points out has been without a defined goal for the last 30 years.

The movie is critical of O'Keefe, but it lets news footage from the past several years do most of the talking (O'Keefe is revealed to be a man unable to hide his distaste for anyone questioning his decisions). When the film tackles complicated scientific principles, Gaynes relies on whimsical animated stick drawings to explain the point. And he doesn't miss the opportunity to showcase images captured by the telescope — so otherworldly, they look like groovy cosmic murals you might see painted on the side of a panel van.

"There was something very inspiring to me about the fact that people were fighting for this thing that is a political issue, but has nothing to do with partisan politics," Gaynes said. "And you had astronauts basically saying they would risk their lives to go to Hubble."

In 2009, bowing to common sense and pressure from the scientific community, NASA reversed its decision and a crew was sent to give Hubble a tuneup. It was one of the last missions before the shuttle program was retired. So what happens now? According to Gaynes: "They're spending tremendous amounts of money on the successor to Hubble, which is the James Webb Telescope, which is supposed to be launched in 2018. It's behind schedule and over budget, like so many of these things. That's hurt some of Webb's credibility to a certain extent — and that's why people were fighting to save Hubble as well, to maintain the capability of looking deep into space until the time in which Webb is ready."

When the film screens in Crestwood, it will be outdoors and under the stars at the Standard Bank Stadium. "We're inviting amateur astronomers, and the idea is that if it's a clear night, people can look through their telescopes and see whatever's in the sky that night." A professional astronomer will also be on hand with Gaynes for a post-screening Q&A.

"Saving Hubble" screens 7 p.m. Friday at the Oak Park Library. Go to oppl.org. The film also screens outdoors 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Crestwood. Go to savinghubble.com and click "roadshow." Filmmaker David Gaynes and an astronomer will be at both screenings.

Super 8

The defiantly non-digital Super 8 experimental film fest known as Small Gauge is back for a second year, featuring new short films with intriguing titles such as "Micro-Celluloid Incidents in 4 Santas" and "sears catalogue." Through Sunday at Cinema Borealis. Go to chicago8fest.org (note: you have to scroll through a series of stills from the films until you get to info on the fest itself).

24-hour scares

Horror curator Rusty Nails has booked a 24-hour lineup for this weekend's movie marathon (called The Massacre) with Linnea Quickley, star of 1985's "Return of the Living Dead" expected in person, as well as Jack Hill (writer and director of the blaxploitation hit "Foxy Brown") who will present his 1964 comedy-horror film "Spider Baby." Saturday through Sunday, beginning at noon at the Portage Theater. For a full list of films, go to portagetheater.org/events.

Home movies

The Chicago Film Archives presents the 10th annual Home Movie Day this weekend, screening amateur home movies provided by the audience. What better chance to see the nutty relatives of people you don't know ham it up for the camera? 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Chicago History Museum. Go to chicagofilmarchives.org.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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