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Astronaut Q & A

Astronaut Brian Duffy Talks About Filming 3-D Movies in Space

Astronaut Brian Duffy
Astronaut Brian Duffy, mission commander, adds the STS-92 patch to the growing collection of those representing Shuttle crews who have worked on the ISS. A location in the functional cargo block or Zarya serves as the traditional posting site for the patches.(NASA)

Astronaut Brian Duffy, one of the stars AND camera operators for the IMAX Space Station 3-D movie, spoke recently to Scholastic News Zone. As an STS-92 crew member, Duffy was enlisted to film his time onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Duffy and his crew prepared the station for its first long-term inhabitants.

Duffy recently retired after 16 years as an astronaut. He is now working as a vice president for Lockheed Martin at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He has two kids, both in college.

Q: What does STS mean?
Duffy:
It stands for Space Transportation System. It's a shuttle holdover from the Challenger time, when each mission was reduced to a number. The flight after us was STS-26. They don't go in order. The details of a mission get started years ahead of time with planning and payload work. We fly them out of order. Even though I was 92—I was commander of that mission—we were the hundredth space-shuttle flight.

Our flight was in October 2000. We were an international crew of seven. We spoke about 10 different languages on my crew. We were carrying two pieces of the ISS up to orbit. The primary piece was the Z-1 truss, the backbone of the station. It's the base for where the solar arrays would be built and an interface between where the crew lives and the solar arrays. The solar arrays are where the station would get its power. We also had a lot of communications components and cooling components. That was a busy piece of hardware: a 15-foot cube that weighed just under 20,000 pounds!

Another component was the PMA-3, a pressurized matting adapter. It was the doorway for an orbiter that could dock the shuttle and the crew could enter. It's a docking port. We had to have the PMA-3 added in place because the crew bringing the arrays had to dock there.

That part is in the IMAX film.

Q: What's so special about this IMAX movie?
Duffy:
It's the first 3-D space movie. Imax built hardware and helped train crews. NASA provided our ability to film them. The cameras were especially designed as 3-D cameras. My mission was to be the first to do the filming. We had three different lenses to select for the filming and they were controlled from a laptop computer.

Q: What kind of training did you have to go through to do the filming?
Duffy:
One camera was already onboard the space station when we got there. We had to carry up the film. You can't leave film in space because radiation ruins the film. We loaded it in a magazine, shot the footage, and brought it back. We were the first flight in a series of flights to document the construction of the space station. Three members of the crew, me, Pam Melroy, and Koichi Wakata, were trained to operate and load and unload the film.

We preplanned the scenes we were going to shoot. First we rehearsed them on the ground during course of training. Because we didn't have time to practice on orbit, we knew we'd have to do it correctly the first time with no rehearsal in space.

We also had to build all the preparation time for shooting the scenes into our time line. Every minute of every day is accounted for in one way or another. By time-lining it, we had to get the filming into the flight plan before we were prepared and ready to go.

We shot about eight or nine interior scenes where we were documenting some of the events we did in the flight, like the rendezvous. Our robotic-arm operator lifted the components out of the bay. We also filmed four space walks. Once the components were in place, we had to go outside and hook up all the umbilicals and other things that needed to be functional for other flights coming to the station.

We shot a number of scenes of the astronauts preparing to go out and do a space walk. We shot scenes of Kolichi lifting the truss out of the loading bay. L.A. (that's what we call Lopez) was free flying with a small jet pack. Our test objective was to fly the jet pack. The idea was if a crew member was disconnected, he could fly back to safety. The jet pack had not been demonstrated before. We got a great shot of L.A. free-flying. One of the other guys was standing next to the end of the arm. L.A. was tethered to a small wire to pull him back.

We shot about 14 or 15 exterior scenes. Just about all of them are in the movie. We're really proud of that. Just about all of our footage was used. We were really happy, because they had to teach us to become on-scene filmmakers and producers. We had to learn what to watch for, what not to do, setting up lighting. We had to be very involved. The work was very in-depth. We were very satisfied with the results.

Q: Was training for filmmaking harder or easier than regular astronaut training?
Duffy:
It was certainly different. It's not so difficult that you can't do it. I've been flying my whole life, but this was new. I was working a camera the size of a suitcase.

Q: The press release for the movie says you "acted as human dollies." What's that mean?
Duffy:
When you're filming in three dimensions, and the camera is static and not moving, it's impressive. But there are techniques for 3-D and it means moving the camera. We planned motion into our scenes. With a target fixed in the lense, I would be in footloops to move around the target. It's hard to stabilize in space. I'd hook my foot into the loops, then I'd film from one angle, then change positions very slowly. You have to be smooth as you change positions as if attached to a dolly, but it's weightless.

Q: Have you seen the movie? Does it really make you feel weightless?
Duffy:
The 3-D filming makes you feel like you're in the scene itself rather than in a theatre looking at a scene. That third dimension of depth really puts you there. Some scenes really cause you to grab your chairs because you feel like you're rolling. Visual impact of the third dimension is really great.

Q: How long were you up there?
Duffy:
The mission was for two weeks, station to station. It was my fourth time in space. It's a beautiful laboratory—a great place. When we got there, there wasn't anybody home. We were the last ones there before the permanent crew went up. We delivered supplies. The station was brand-new, bright, clean, and warm. And it was quiet. It reminded me of a new house. It was really beautiful.

Q: What's the daily schedule like?
Duffy:
Folks up there for a long duration operate slightly differently than we do on the shuttle, but in general I can tell you how things go.

I can tell you about a day in space from a shuttle perspective. Your launch time is determined by where the orbit of the space station is on the day you want to launch, because the Earth's turning around every 24 hours. Every day, the space station passes over the cape 23 minutes earlier than it did the day before.

Think of the space station orbit like a hoola-hoop, tipped at an angle (51.6 degrees to equator). When the Cape (where the launch pad is located) rotates underneath it, you launch into that hoola-hoop. Then you can catch up with the station as you change your altitude.

We generally try to rendezvous with the space station on the third day. That gives you time to adapt to being weightless and make up the distance in miles to catch up to it.

Once you launch, you go through the exercise of converting from a rocket to the vehicle you will live in. Then you go to bed. You are in bed five hours after the launch. You have an eight-hour sleep period. You wake up with music over the speakers and your day begins.

Every day is different. As a general rule, you have 1 1/2 hours to wake up, clean up, eat breakfast, brush your teeth. That gives you time to read the e-mail to see what's different about the day than from what was originally planned. On the ground, they've been putting together changes for your daily flight plan.

The workday begins with four or five hours of scheduled activity. They schedule in a one-hour lunch break, but we normally don't stop to eat. We're still doing other things. You'll have a full afternoon, too. You work right up until about three hours before the end of the workday. You start cleaning up all the things you need to get ready for bed. You need time to have some dinner and to read your e-mail from your family and friends. You can answer and send it back down. It's a pretty full day. It all depends on the mission for the activities. There are certain things that have to be done on all shuttle missions, like housekeeping to maintain the health of the orbiter (the shuttle vehicle).

The space shuttle requires regular attention to make sure things are working right. During the course of missions you produce a lot of water. We don't have batteries. We have something called fuel cells to generate electricity. They produce by creating hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that produces water. We produce our own drinking water by producing electricity. We produce so much, we can't use it all and have to dump it overboard.

Q: What's the hardest part of being in space?
Duffy:
Keeping track of things. Everything has Velcro on it. But what do you do with the top of the toothpaste when you take it off? If it doesn't have Velcro, what do you do with it? Things will just float away from you. Up there you don't have a clue where it's going.

Q: Isn't that dangerous?
Duffy:
Potentially it could be, but most of the sensitive areas are sealed. Toothpaste caps can't get in there and mess things up.

Q: Did you have fun?
Duffy:
When you hear the voices [in the movie], you'll know we did. We were high-flying when we shot the scenes. We could see on the laptop the scenes that the camera was seeing. The scenes were so spectacular that we were really thrilled. It was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed learning how difficult it is to film a first-class movie. Just a little 30-second scene can take two hours to set up. A lot of time and work was invested in each little scene of every movie.

Q: What do you tell kids when they ask about becoming an astronaut?
Duffy:
Don't think you can't do it. I was 8 years old once thinking it would be cool to do, but I thought at the time, I'm just a kid, so I didn't think I could. My advice for studies is to pursue things that you like. I studied math because I liked it, not necessarily because I thought it would lead me here. Pursue your dreams, study what you like, know it's okay to make mistakes, try to learn from it and don't make it again. Nobody's perfect.

When I was 8, I watched Alan Shephard and thought that would be cool. I can tell you now, it really IS cool!

When I autograph pictures, I always sign them: Aim high and always do your best!

–Interview by Suzanne Freeman

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