It's hard to imagine a more dramatically awesome and visually appropriate spectacle for the Air and Space Museum's film theater than "Hail Columbia," a 35-minute documentary about the space shuttle's first flight that begins weekend evening screenings tomorrow.

From the opening nighttime shot of the white spacecraft being rolled out of its construction hangar, to the final triple-screen replays of the shuttle's flaming launch framed against blue Florida skies, "Hail Columbia" is a roller coaster ride that adds a real sense of space to the Air and Space Museum.

Forget about dinky images of Columbia that have become commonplace on 21-inch TV screens, or even visitors' minuscule glimpses of launches from three miles out at Cape Canaveral. Finally, this movie gives real purpose to the museum's 50-by-75 foot screen, as the space shuttle is displayed just shy of its actual dimensions -- about the size of a DC-9.

The implicit awe in the machine is apparent from the film's very opening as a static camera allows the shuttle to slowly pass before our eyes. The soundtrack simply records the wonder of Rockwell workers gathered in front of the hangar for the event: they're clapping and cheering and commenting on what it's like to see this thing whole for the first time.

The situation in the theater is the same: no matter how many times we've seen Columbia, it's never looked quite this good. And although filmmakers Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroitor have managed to focus on the shuttle from every conceivable angle -- including a dazzling shot of it suspended vertically in the construction hangar -- they never lose sight of the bond between man and machine; after all, this is the first spacecraft that's actually flown by astronauts.

When it's time to introduce astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, Kroitor and Ferguson wisely matte the huge screen down to about one-quarter size. It's an effective device that keeps the two men in some sense of scale appropriate to the size of the shuttle on the screen. The filmmakers constantly play little perspective tricks like these, such as a teaser scene of an armadillo sniffing about in a field. The animal seems huge, until the camera cuts to a long shot of the Columbia and its launch complex, now with the tiny armadillo in the foreground. Once again the overwhelming size of the shuttle is emphasized. And when the spacecraft finally roars skyward, the intensity of the churning, popping rocket engines fills the theater with as much audio intensity as one feels at an actual launch.

"Hail Columbia," is full of clever editing, in two senses of the word. The filmmakers have not only compressed an enormous amount of information about the shuttle into the 35 minutes of the film, but they've managed to do it in a way that's visually stylized. There's a scene of John Young walking on the moon during an earlier Apollo mission while a message is relayed from Houston that Congress has just voted funds to begin the shuttle project. The film now flashes forward nine years to a night shot of the shuttle on the pad with a full moon hanging in the top of the frame.

There are so many nice little touches in the film: Young very dryly making jokes at a pre-launch press conference; quick shots of Cocoa Beach hotel and restaurant signs bidding the astronauts good luck; filmmaker Steven Spielberg standing in a crowd at Cape Canaveral, waiting for the launch; Young working weightless in the cockpit of Columbia, with his reading glasses balanced on his nose.

Like the other films shown regularly at the Air and Space Museum, "Hail Columbia" was shot in the Imax format, a high-speed 70-millimeter process that allows the extraordinary detail present in all the museum's films. Unlike the others, though, this one is the first to have been made by the Toronto company that developed Imax. One glimpse at "Hail Columbia," and you realize that only these guys seem to know how to exploit the process. They understand size and scale and narrative storytelling in ways that quickly undermine the silly banter in "To Fly" and the terrible acting in "Flyers."

"Hail Columbia" is proof positive that if you're going to use a film presentation size this big, you'd better have a big story to tell. In many ways the film seems more in keeping with the epic scope of feature films like "Lawrence of Arabia" than with the visually pretty but dramatically empty shorts that Air and Space has been offering until now. Yet another one arrives tomorrow along with "Hail Columbia": "Silent Sky," 18 minutes of glider flying that seem to last more like 18 hours. It will be shown with the shuttle film at 6, 7:30 and 9 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Admission is $3.

It seems ironic that the museum's best film, about the uniquely American subject of the shuttle, happens to have been made by Canadians. And it seems doubly ironic, perhaps even a bit idiotic, that "Hail Columbia" is only being shown on evenings when the rest of the museum is closed. The museum's directors have for some strange, provincial reason decided against showing films not specifically produced by the museum when the museum is open. Which simply means that regular visitors will never have the opportunity to see what may well be the best thing Air and Space has to offer.