Hurtling through the sky to a landing as delicate as any ballerina's, the 100-ton spaceship Columbia met with success and throngs of enthusiastic people after its maiden flight in April 1981. The thousands gathered in the Mojave Desert were caught up in the noisy drama of the moment: They were screaming, clapping and cheering for the spaceship, the men aboard, the country that had brought the whole thing to a roaring success.
It all comes back to jubilant life in "Hail, Columbia!" opening this Friday at the National Air and Space Museum. Tracing the first flight of the shuttle from pre-launch preparations through flight to landing, the IMAX film, projected on the five-story screen of the Samuel P. Langley Theater, winds itself through the audience; the room becomes the Houston control center, the launching pad, the landing strip. John Young and Robert Crippen are no longer names in the newspaper, they're friends and you're watching them, bigger than life, as they practice procedures on earth, talk about their mission, conduct experiments in space.
The curious thing about this celebration of America's space-shuttle success is that the film was made in Canada. As it turns out, we can put men on the moon but we don't have the technology to do what IMAX, of Canada, can do with its unique system of cameras and lights. In fact, there are only 20 screens and planetaria in America on which IMAX films can be shown.
But the triumph of the moment is nonetheless purely American: The people in the crowd are wiping tears from their faces and so are some people in the audience. In fact, at one viewing, a little boy in his chair couldn't help but give a loud "Yahoo!" along with the folks on the screen as the spaceship thunders back home.
"Silent Sky" rounds out the IMAX festival, also taking the viewer into the air, this time with sailplanes soaring over California and background music to glide by. While the camera work is fantastic and the scenery grand, 18 minutes of twisting and turning is enough to make you a little giddy.
Both show Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 6, 7:30 and 9. Tickets are $3, $2 for children, students and those over 65. Shows daily December 26 through January 2.