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Saving Hubble: A conversation with the director

14 June 2012

The film shows how people rallied to save NASA's iconic space observatory from termination.

'We, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have developed one of the greatest scientific instruments conceived,' a cabdriver tells documentary filmmaker David Gaynes while driving him through dark, rainy streets in Nashville, Tennessee in November 2006. The Hubble Space Telescope is 'an immense device that we have created, and to let it decay and fall apart is just foolish.' That scene comes early in Gaynes's new documentary, Saving Hubble . And for Gaynes, the chance meeting with the cabbie 'epitomizes' what his film is about.

The movie documents the Hubble Space Telescope, from its rocky start, when a space walk was needed to fix a faulty mirror, through its fabulous observations, later servicing missions, and the telescope's impact on science and the public. When it was announced in 2004 that the Hubble would be terminated, the outcry was huge: 'Hubble huggers' gathered some 50 000 signatures asking Congress to keep the telescope alive. Steven Beckwith, then director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, says in the film that 'Probably the most job-threatening decision I made was to support Hubble itself, to advocate for Hubble when NASA said it would be canceled.'

'My original inspiration was born out of my frustration as an everyday citizen that saw on the news that Hubble was going to be canceled,' says Gaynes. 'I was pretty outraged.' He started working on the film because he 'felt there was something worth exploring.' The film features astronauts, astronomers, engineers, journalists, and laypeople. It includes historic footage of political events, shuttle launches, space walks, and, of course, pictures from the Hubble.

'Initially my plan was to document the story. In some ways, I thought I was writing a eulogy for the telescope,' Gaynes says. 'Then, of course, the grassroots movement gained momentum, and Congress seemed to favor keeping the Hubble going and was really pressing [then NASA administrator Sean] O'Keefe's heels to the fire.'

In the end, of course, Hubble was saved. The systems installed during a 2009 servicing mission were designed to last at least five years. NASA evaluates the mission for productivity and value every two years, and in this year's review, the mission scored very well. A NASA spokesperson notes that President Obama, in his fiscal year 2013 budget request, specified funding for Hubble through 2017.

When Hubble was saved in October 2006, Gaynes says, 'I found I had a whole different story on my hands, a story that transcended partisanship. The reasons the Hubble is so popular seemed to go to the core of some kind of deep-seated American values.'

The film closes with astronaut Story Musgrave musing, 'The stuff Hubble gives you is of no practical significance. It's of philosophical significance. It's an existential question. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where's it all going?'

So far, Gaynes is showing the film in selected venues. It has been screened for amateur astronomers. It was shown at the American Astronomical Society meeting this past January, and at other events it has been previewed in conjunction with panel discussions, looking through telescopes, and other activities that engage people and get them talking.

A trailer of Saving Hubble can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/22460852. To arrange a screening, contact David Gaynes by e-mail at dg@savinghubble.com or by phone at 212-795-1616. Physics Today's Toni Feder spoke to the director in person and by phone.

PT : You are a filmmaker, not an astronomer. Why make a film about the Hubble Space Telescope?

GAYNES : When I heard that Hubble was canceled I thought, Where are my tax dollars going if not to Hubble? Something about the decision to abandon Hubble seemed strange. I thought, Isn't our space program deputized to take risks? If we are not going to take risks as a country, then who are we?

PT : The Hubble cancelation came after the 2003 Columbia disaster. Did that play a role?

GAYNES : Right. That was one of the reasons given [for not servicing the Hubble]: It is too risky. But we accept risk. To think about not having access to the next generation of understanding about the universe was upsetting. . . . . The scientific facts and figures are amazing. They are exciting for scientists. But they do something much more important on a human level: They modify our sense of self as a species. So to turn that off to me, when given a choice, was outrageous. And I think a lot of people agreed with me. Otherwise Hubble wouldn't have been saved.

PT : How did you get into film making?

GAYNES : I began my career in television journalism. I got into documentary film making in 2000. My first documentary feature came out in 2005. Keeper of the Kohn is the story of a man named Peter Kohn who is in his early seventies. He is believed to have some mild form of autism, but lived his life without a diagnosis and limited capacities in some ways. The story is cinema verité—no narration, but rather a direct observation about his peculiar and somewhat legendary career as a lacrosse water boy and his close relationship with a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer. I just finished shooting my third feature. It's about a group of residents from a nursing home who make a pilgrimage to Israel. There is a common thread through all of this.

PT : Old age?

GAYNES : Yes. Hubble is a bit of an old-age story. With old age, you can explore the questions of life and death a bit more easily because [they're] brought into stark relief. My purpose is to find stories that shed light on the human condition.

PT : How do you see Saving Hubble doing that?

GAYNES : The side of Hubble that I am exploring in the movie goes beyond science. It's a question of what is the human need to create things like Hubble in the first place; that emotional or spiritual drive underlying the determination to create great scientific machines. As you saw in the film, every single person in the documentary is emoting on Hubble's behalf. That is part of the Hubble story that I don't think has been told before now—how deeply we as a culture have come to love a telescope.

The plot of Saving Hubble is its fight for survival against the O'Keefe administration at NASA. But that's a framework. The story is really about the engineers, the cabdrivers, the cheerleaders, the astronauts. . . . The plot is the most important structural element, but it is not necessarily the emotional core of the piece.

PT : Where is the film showing?

GAYNES : Right now we are working on the Hubble Road Show. The situation for independent documentary filmmakers is that the onus is on us to find the audience. So we—I have a partner, Carol Porteous, working on this with me—are previewing the movie in connection with events. We want to encourage conversation. It's about energizing people about valuing the role of science in our world.

The roadshow is all about thinking big. People are fired up right now, socially—there's the Occupy movement, the Tea Party. The average citizen is frustrated with the lack of direction. I don't think the partisan fight we see played out on TV—not just the elections but the gridlock in Congress that's choking our democratic process—is anywhere near as urgent or even as real as the fight we need to wage against our own complacency. The problems are urgent. We need people who take action and we need certain bedrock facts to guide us so that we can move forward as one society.

That is what I find so powerful about Hubble's story and why I'm compelled to use it as a metaphor that people can apply in other areas. Together, we fought for the telescope and we saved it. We agreed it was important and the astronauts risked it all to save it. If we're going to build a smarter power grid, or shore up looming financial crises or—can I dream big?—bring the global environment into balance, we're going to have to band together, we're going to have to use science, we're going to have to motivate. That's what the story of Saving Hubble is about to me and that's the guiding light for the Hubble Roadshow. Hopefully we'll be invited to screen the movie and we'll get the funding to make it happen.

PT : Do you have any anecdotes from the filmmaking process?

GAYNES : Lots! The movie is kind of a road movie. We are taking you from place to place. We had dinner at Charlie Bolden's house. He was pilot of the first Hubble deployment in 1990, and now he is NASA administrator. After the interview, he asked us where we were headed. His wife had made chili, and we stayed for a while. Her chili was delicious. It was a very memorable experience, with that very human element that's always been a part of the process of making the movie.

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