Academy Journeys to Mars and (Far) Beyond at Sold-Out Event

Hosted by producer Frank Marshall, the event showcased the relationship between NASA animation and Hollywood in such films as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Hubble 3D."
(c) NASA

“What’s anything without a trip to Mars?” asked NASA’s Eric De Jong Tuesday night on stage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a venue seemingly as distant from his usual haunt -- JPL -- as are, well, Earth and Mars. No one in the audience seemed inclined to disagree, but many no doubt felt, “Why stop at Mars?”

The panelists at the sold-out event, “Capturing the Final Frontier: NASA Animation and the Movies,” were happy to oblige.

And so, over the course of a couple hours, they took the crowd of virtual space tourists on a journey from the Kennedy Space Center onward to the Moon, Mars, then beyond the solar system, the Milky Way and ultimately to the edge of the observable Universe 10 billion light years away.

The audience included at least one actual space tourist -- Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon -- and one from Hollywood, June Lockhart, the co-star of Lost in Space, still going strong (and still working) at age 87.

But, of course, most of the stars of the event were celestial.

The 10 panelists -- who came on stage mostly in pairs and were deftly hosted by producer Frank Marshall -- ranged from NASA personnel and consultants to such Hollywood veterans as producer Tom Jacobson and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar.

The visuals included clips from Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) bidding a tearful goodbye to a robot friend while a real space shuttle loomed above them on the launch pad -- and from Mission to Mars (2000), a fictional film, and animations and documentary footage from Roving Mars (2006) and Hubble 3D (2010). NASA data has also been used for sequences in Men in Black and Avengers.

Much of the footage was in 3D and elicited ooh's and ah’s as spacecraft blasted off, portions of multistage rockets dropped away and rovers deployed supersonic parachutes and landed on Mars. One of the rovers was surrounded by giant airbags and bounced on the planet’s surface like an oversize beach ball before coming to rest.

Also a delight was a visualization of the complex landing mechanism to be used by a new rover, Curiosity, set to land on Mars three weeks from now, the night of Aug. 5. In a first, the landing will be streamed live on the Internet.

The dramatic footage also included a flyby -- actually, a fly-through -- of a galaxy in which numerous stars were aborning. And although the galaxies and stars seemed countless, advisor Frank Summers mentioned that by extrapolating from Hubble space telescope observations, scientists had managed to estimate the number of galaxies at 100 billion, each with billions of stars.

In a lighter moment, NASA’s Dave Lavery recounted a technique used 25 years ago to transform a sandpit to the surface of Mars for a Life magazine cover shoot: sprinkling the sand with 250 pounds of paprika.

In contrast, one of the effects sequences shown during the program required 50,000 hours of processing time on a supercomputer. Paprika-loving cooks the world over -- and perhaps on other worlds -- are no doubt pleased to know that astronomers and producers no longer need corner the spice market in order to depict journeys to far-flung planets.

Twitter: @jhandel