Space is suddenly out-of-this-world popular again.
The demand for tickets for "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens" caused computers to crash last week. Ridley Scott's "The Martian" is the No. 1 movie at the box office. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently found briny water on the Red Planet's surface, and its New Horizon spacecraft sent back pictures this summer of Pluto.
And on Thursday the new "Journey to Space 3D" Imax documentary and exhibition will land at the California Science Center, home of the space shuttle Endeavour.
"Journey to Space 3D" examines the new era of exploration into space, most notably NASA's goal to get a manned spaceship to Mars within the next two decades. Narrated by Patrick Stewart and shot at the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, the film also features interviews with astronauts Chris Ferguson and Serena Aunon.
The film and the exhibition were planned separately. In fact, the California Science Center and the Science Museum of Minnesota, which partnered on the exhibition, came up with the idea about 15 years ago. "We had waited until we had the right combination of funding and technology," said Kenneth Phillips, aerospace science curator at the Science Center.
"It was somewhat serendipitous" agreed Mark Krenzien, the writer and director of "Journey to Space." "We knew of the exhibit coming together while we were in production. Museums love it when they can synchronize a film and an exhibit."
Phillips noted that the exhibition is highly interactive. "The whole purpose of the exhibit is to figure out what to do to stay alive in space," he said. "It's an extremely hostile environment. You could lose the pressure inside your spacecraft. You get radiation and temperature extremes. Once you stay alive, the game isn't over. How do you stay productive? How do you build a space station?"
There's even a full-scale model of an International Space Station module. "It is equipped with racks of electronic equipment," Phillips said. "We set it up so that, when you walk through it slowly, it is turning around you. You get this disorienting feeling."
Phillips said kids are very aware of NASA. "The space shuttle has a very recognizable form," he said. "It's easy for a kid to get their imagination around what it is. Most of the audiences from ages maybe 10 onward would have a good mental image when they flew because [the shuttles were] only retired like three years ago.
"This exhibit is loosely based upon the legacy of the space shuttle. People come to see the Endeavour and ask questions about where is NASA going in the future."
According to space shuttle astronaut John D. Olivas, the exhibition and film "do a lot to set the record straight regarding the fantasy of space — which are all the 'Star Wars'-type movies — and the reality of space, which is what NASA is doing right now today and what space is really about. It's about science, engineering and mathematics."
"Journey into Space 3D" initially was developed as a film about the history of the space shuttles.
"We usually rigorously test our titles and topics to make sure the audiences who go to these museums and science centers that have these theaters would be interested in this," said Mark Kresser, president of K2 Communications, which specializes in giant-screen documentaries.
Though the topic tested well, Krenzien told the producers, "the shuttle is wonderful to celebrate, but I think we need to tell the public about what the next step is. What surprised us is how unaware the public is that NASA's primary goal is to plan for and execute a human mission to Mars that isn't in the distant, distant future. So we quickly agreed that the space shuttle was a jumping-off point."