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All Space, All the Time

Is NASA ready for prime time?

Is the agency practicing censorship? “I wouldn’t say that at all,” she bristles. “They never came to us about something we said we wanted to do and said ‘Don’t do this.’ ”

Myers, who worked on the IMAX films The Dream Is Alive, Blue Planet, Destiny in Space, and Mission to Mir, says that after 15 years of collaboration, a comfortable working routine has evolved between IMAX and the space agency. Myers typically develops a scene list for each mission, which NASA reviews. Working together, the two groups arrive at a shooting schedule. Whether this micromanaging infringes on the creative freedom of her production crews is beside the point, says Myers. “The reality is, this is different from any other kind of documentary. There are issues to account for, a certain protocol that has to be followed very, very carefully [involving] crew safety and so forth. These projects are so difficult to pull off in the first place that it doesn’t really become an issue.”

She contrasts her work with Michael Moore’s ambush-style documentaries, such as the 1989 Roger and Me, a black comedy about layoffs in the auto industry: “It’s about as opposite from that as you can get.”

There is, of course, a marvelous payoff. In exchange for playing by NASA’s strict rules, IMAX gets the goods: intimate glimpses of aerospace arcana, the view that only astronauts normally get. “It’s important for us—our mission, really—to not gloss over the details,” says Myers. “I think that with more out there [on] the cable channels and the Internet…and with a broader fan base, the details become that much more important.”

Tom Rooker, a film producer who worked on Space Cowboys, agrees that moviegoers have become more sophisticated and thus demand accuracy and realism. “Everybody and their dog is looking at things in greater and greater detail,” he says. “The public is getting incredibly jaded. When I was growing up, we were astonished by something like a puppeteer. Nowadays, everybody knows everything. Your typical five-year-old has seen Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and all those amazing things that can be done.”

In fact, says Rooker, what motivated Eastwood to make his film was the wealth of detail and technical assistance that NASA, and only NASA, could provide. The negotiations between Mad Chance, the movie’s production company, and the space agency took a year. “And that was mostly just the arrangements, figuring out the logistics,” says Rooker. The filmmakers granted NASA full script approval. Drafts were vetted by flight directors at both Houston and Cape Canaveral, which weighed in with their editorial comments. “They looked over our shoulders,” Rooker admits, “but they would always, in the end, accept what we call a ‘feasible fiction.’ ” And, in the end, Mad Chance got exactly what it wanted. It got the details. For example, it got the answers to questions such as “When you latch in your feet, does that keep you stable?” and “What is the proper sequence of buttons to push for a shuttle landing?” Not everyone knows these things, says Rooker, but there are “enough people out there who do.”

More productions are in the works, and not just for the big screen. Space-based storylines, says Paula Cleggett, should soon find their way onto prime time TV. And always looming are the new media pioneers who think space can sell big on the Web. The space.com Web site has become an Exhibit A for this argument, and has been carefully scrutinized for the many sobering lessons to be learned.

In the heady days of the Internet boom, space.com looked for all the world like a can’t-miss proposition. It was well-financed, it had Sally Ride and other big names on board, and it even opened offices in NASA’s own headquarters building in Washington. Lou Dobbs, a former CNN anchor and space enthusiast, was in charge. NASA officials started talking excitedly of having a new way to communicate with a new generation.

Instead, only two years later, the company had closed its Washington office. Traffic on the site has continued to decline. And though Dobbs had once boasted of the private sector’s support for space.com, the outfit has been, say observers, hemorrhaging money and on the verge of failure. Some point the finger at the bottoming-out of the dot-coms and the stagnation of the economy in general. Others chalk the company’s waning fortunes up to a simple case of miscalculation. “Like a lot of Web startups,” says Ladwig, “the revenue model wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.” Besides, he adds, “space is a niche market.”

Three months before stepping down to return to television last spring, Dobbs admitted, “We’re faced with what everyone else is—the Web is a lot trickier than expected.” The burning question, says Ladwig, is still “How does a private company come in and make money off something that’s in the public domain?”

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