Planetary Radio • Nov 22, 2023

Deep Sky: A JWST IMAX experience

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On This Episode

Nathaniel kahn portrait

Nathaniel Kahn

Filmmaker and director of Deep Sky

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Deep Sky, a newly released IMAX documentary, tells the emotional and hopeful story of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Nathaniel Kahn, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and the director of Deep Sky, joins Planetary Radio this week to discuss the film's decade-long creation process and the magic of JWST images on the big screen. Then Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, joins for What's Up and a new random space fact.

Deep Sky poster
Deep Sky poster Deep Sky is an IMAX documentary about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The film covers the building, launch, and deployment of the telescope before showing the observatory’s first images on the big screen.Image: IMAX Entertainment
Nathaniel Kahn at the LA Deep Sky premiere
Nathaniel Kahn at the LA Deep Sky premiere Deep Sky, an IMAX documentary about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) first aired at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 21, 2023. After the showing, the audience was invited to meet Nathaniel Kahn, the director of the film.Image: Sarah Al-Ahmed / The Planetary Society
JWST's First Deep Field Image
JWST's First Deep Field Image JWST's first science image was released a day early, on July 11, 2022, in an address by the President of the United States, Joe Biden. This deep field image is the highest-resolution and deepest infrared view of our Universe taken to date. The light from these galaxies is gravitationally lensed by the mass of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 in the foreground. It causes their light to be warped into beautiful arcs. This image shows SMACS 0723 as it was 4.6 billion years ago, but the background galaxies are much further away. The furthest light in this image has taken over 13 billion years to reach us. This image represents a part of the sky that's so small that it could fit behind a grain of sand on the tip of your finger held at arm's length.Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI
JWST Carina Nebula
JWST Carina Nebula The James Webb Space Telescope's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captured this stunning view of the Carina Nebula, located about 7,500 light-years from Earth. Nicknamed the "cosmic cliffs," it is essentially a nursery for young stars, some of them several times larger than our own Sun.Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI
JWST wide field with Neptune
JWST wide field with Neptune In this image by JWST's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), you can see Neptune along with Triton, which appears as a bright blue object to Neptune's upper left. Triton is brighter than Neptune because its surface reflects 70% of the light that hits it. In the background you can see a smattering of hundreds of galaxies.Image: NASA / ESA/ CSA / STScI


Sarah Al-Ahmed: JWST meets IMAX this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society, with more of the human adventure across our Solar System and beyond. The emotional thought-provoking and hopeful story of the James Webb Space Telescope or JWST has finally hit the big screen. Nathaniel Kahn, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and the director of Deep Sky, a newly released JWST IMAX movie, joins us this week. We'll discuss the film's decade-long creation process, the power of science for discovery's sake, and why IMAX is the perfect format for viewing the mind-boggling images from JWST. Then, we'll check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society for What's Up? I want to know what space images he would put up on an IMAX. If you love Planetary Radio and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and our place within it. Before we move on to the main course of today's episode, I have to ask, did you get a chance to experience the SpaceX Starship launch test from Boca Chica, Texas on November 18th, 2023? This was the second fully integrated full-stack test flight for SpaceX's Starship which is the most powerful rocket to ever fly. For context, this thing produces about twice as much thrust as the Saturn V rockets that first took humanity to the moon. These tests are cool to watch just for the excitement, but they're also crucial to the future of human spaceflight. The Starship plays a key role in the upcoming crewed Artemis missions to return humans to the lunar surface. So I was on the edge of my seat the entire time I was watching the livestream. Technically, the test was a success. The rocket launched and traveled farther than it has in any other previous test. It made it all the way to space. But shortly after the booster separated from the craft, it exploded spectacularly. The Planetary Society collaborated with our friends at Everyday Astronaut to bring you a livestream of the November 18th Starship test. You can watch it on YouTube or watch it on our website at But just in case, I'm going to leave a more permanent link to that on the page for this episode of Planetary Radio. You can find that at The footage is totally worth watch. I will always remember the day that the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released. It was July 12th, 2022. I can vividly remember the goosebumps and the way my eyes instantly welled with tears when I was staring into that first deep field image. It was a moment that was decades in the making and one that I had been looking forward to for ages. But to watch humanity experience it together as the images hit the internet like a wildfire was something beautiful. More than a year later on October 21st, I had the privilege of attending the West Coast premiere of Deep Sky, which is a new IMAX film about JWST. I went with my colleague, Ambre Trujillo, who's our digital community manager here at The Planetary Society, and we went to go see it at the California Science Center, which is at the heart of Los Angeles. As space nerds, I knew that we were going to enjoy the film, but I wasn't really expecting to have tears streaming down my face for almost 45 minutes. There was something about the storytelling, something about reliving the decades of build-up and the tension of the telescope's launch and deployment, and something absolutely breathtaking about witnessing the telescope's images on a screen that large. Deep Sky is an IMAX film directed by our guest today, Oscar-nominated director Nathaniel Kahn and narrated by the great Michelle Williams. It takes the audience on a voyage through the creation of JWST, interviewing key people in the history of the telescope before finally revealing the images at IMAX scale and sharing the profound mysteries that we hope to solve through the telescope's observations. Nathaniel Kahn first gained international recognition with his 2003 documentary called My Architect. It explored the work and life of his father, the famed architect Louis Kahn. But long before Nathaniel became an award-winning filmmaker, he fell in love with space as a child. He had no idea that all of those nights he spent searching the stars through his neighbor's telescope would someday lead him on a decade-long adventure to chronicle the history and the hope behind one of the greatest space telescopes in human history. Thanks for joining me, Nathaniel.

Nathaniel Kahn: Thank you for having me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I got a little tiny moment to talk to you right after I first saw this film at the California Science Center. And I'm really glad I get to bring you back on because I think myself and so many others had a deep emotional reaction to seeing this film, not just because it was a beautiful bit of storytelling, but also because of the format. So I'm glad you're here.

Nathaniel Kahn: Thank you. Thank you. Yes. The format is it's the way we should see these images coming back from JWST because you just can't have any sense of the scale on a smartphone. Forget it. It's pretty, it's nice. It's a good screensaver, but these images deserve more than being screensavers. These are things we have to experience really by being in them. And the IMAX format gives you a chance to really immerse yourself in them, and it's pretty awe-inspiring. Awesome is a word that gets way overused, but these images are genuinely awesome.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: They are.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Where were you when you first got to see the images after release?

Nathaniel Kahn: Well, actually, I got to go down, and we filmed. I got to go down to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland when the images were first released to the public, and we all saw them at the same time. The world saw them at the same time, but I was in the room when the images were first flashed on the screen. And many of the people in the room were people who had worked on the mission And the collective gasp when that first deep field came up on the screen was stunning and beautiful. People cried. I mean, in a way, how could you not? And first of all, I think partially the tears flow because, oh my god, that thing works.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It works.

Nathaniel Kahn: You can only cross your fingers for so many years without a lot of pain, but these were people who dedicated their lives, 20 years of their lives and more, many of them to this mission that could easily, easily have failed. And then, to see not just that it succeeded, but that it succeeded like this. And these are the images we're seeing, images of a universe we've never seen before was stunning. It was an incredible moment. And then, of course, there were other images that followed that, that were flashed on the screen. And certainly, some of the engineers had seen images before that, even the first guide images, which we didn't put in the film, but they're incredible. These were just images that they were using to line up the telescope just to make sure all those 18 mirrors actually were converging on one spot and making a singular image, and it was a test image. So it was meant to be a star in our own galaxy that you have 18 images of the star, and you slowly get them to converge upon one image and you know all 18 mirrors are working. At the moment that happened, not only is the star in the image, but the field was filled with galaxies. And many of the people who were there, the engineers, I mean, they broke out in cheers. So I wasn't there for that moment, but I've heard tell of it. And what a relief and what a thrill. And the thrill, it just keeps getting better. That's the great thing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's what's so interesting about it. I was also one of the lucky people that got to see these images released at a NASA facility. I was at the Jet Propulsion Lab here in Pasadena.

Nathaniel Kahn: You were at JPL. Great. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. I was sitting right behind Laurie Leshin. So it was really fun watching everyone's reactions there. But, of course, I'm there trying not to ugly cry in front of all these NASA people.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yup.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But you can't help it, just how long it took people, how much effort it took, and the beauty of these images. And then, I'm in the theater watching Deep Sky, and it hit me again in a whole different way because of the size of the screen, but also just the storytelling behind getting to meet the people. And how many years of footage you had there? You spent about a decade putting this film together, right?

Nathaniel Kahn: I did. Well, not a decade putting the film together, but a decade gathering material for it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah.

Nathaniel Kahn: And I was immediately attracted to the idea of filming this mission from the start because anything in which you have access to film something that has lots of people involved who are really passionate and which may or may not work, I mean, that's exciting for a filmmaker, right? And sometime along the way, I sort of felt like I'm watching the modern-day equivalent, the contemporary equivalent of what it must have been like to witness the building of, say, a medieval cathedral where you're seeing these people, artisans from many different countries and different skill sets and different kinds of specialties getting together to try this thing that's never been tried before. And it could easily fall down. But the goal is to reach the sky, to get as high as they could, to try to make the vault of the sky in the inside to evoke the wonder of the sky and have these enormous rose windows with light coming through that evokes the wonder of the universe. And many of those buildings fell down at first trying it. Things went wrong. The walls went out before they figured out the flying buttress and all these different things. So at some point, I felt like I'm watching something like this. These are people gathering together to try something that had never been done before and that could easily fail. And along the way, there were failures. There were things that went wrong and that had to be rethought. And then, you're even dealing with the problem of you build the technology you have, not the technology you wish you have, or even the technology you have when the thing is finished. So it started, and it's designed. And now, they have to follow it through, even though they figured things out along the way that could make it better, but they can't do that. They have to still sort of work with what they have. So being able to watch that and being able to watch the collaboration between people from 14 different countries working together, it was incredibly inspiring from the human standpoint, just that people could be so driven and so passionate about something, not that they were told to do, but something that they wanted to do. The human story of JWST for me feels like it gives me hope. It gives me a feeling that human beings are capable of such beautiful things when we are able to work together and in harmony as opposed to discord. I mean, it really is inspiring, and that's not pablum. It's not Pollyanna. It really happens. And it really happened with this telescope. And as I say, it could easily have failed. And there were many pressures along the way, for instance, to launch telescope sooner, but that would've been a mistake. So how hard it is to go to the people who are giving you the money and saying, "You know what? We need more time," and risk that people will turn off the tap. And there were several times when it looked like... I mean, I know you've covered this for a while. It looked like the project might be canceled, and there were people who were making political hay out of it and the whole thing. But we stuck with it. And if that doesn't give you sort of, I don't know, when you see these images coming back and the success of it, it also gives you faith in humanity that we are capable of beautiful things and doing things just because we want to know, just because we didn't know, and we want to know. That is something I think that's profoundly human.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And isn't that the beautiful thing about it? This telescope was announced, at least the concept for this telescope was announced when I was a small child. It took decades.

Nathaniel Kahn: Really. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I believe I was nine years old when they first announced-

Nathaniel Kahn: Oh my god. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... this next generation telescope. And when I first heard about it, I was so excited. But then, actually, getting there was such a journey. And I was so inspired not just by the people that built the telescope and the vision behind it, but all of the thousands of people that came together to write their representatives and really throw their love behind the telescope in order to save it because there were times that it came so close to not happening.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And here we are all these years later. What would've happened for you with this film if it hadn't worked? Did you have plans?

Nathaniel Kahn: Well, no, I didn't have plan, no, because of course, I became completely invested in the way [inaudible 00:13:23]. But I made a film called the The Hunt for Planet B that was broadcast by CNN that started at South by Southwest. It's feature length, and it doesn't have the images. It's just about the building project. And even more, it's about the group of astronomers who are looking for another living planet among the stars. It sort of focuses on their community, and that's certainly part of Deep Sky. Deep Sky is a much broader canvas. It's about the entire goal of the telescope and the mission, of course. And the images changed everything, but Planet B just goes to... It doesn't even have the launch. It's the dream behind it. So dreams are important, right? And they don't always turn out, but an essential part of being human is dreaming and wondering about what is possible and, trying, trying hard. And not everything succeeds. So as a filmmaker, the aspiration is really as important to me as the result and certainly filming it, filming the people. The people are the same whether it succeeds or fails, but I'm sure happy for them and for all of us and for NASA and for the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. I mean at some point, the sunk energy, the sunk human capital, I mean everybody talks about the money, but let's talk about the human capital that went into this telescope. The faith, really, the passion, the faith, the trust, all those things. At some point you say, "I really hope it works," because all of that should end up rewarded with what happened. But sometimes, things don't work out, and you have to try again. So I have no question that all of these people would've been ready to try again. I'm more worried about the political piece. How do we convince our government and all of us? Really, it's up to us. This is our telescope. We paid for it. So I'm really glad for all of us that it worked because I think, hopefully, it convinces all of us. And, honestly, I think people are generally convinced that science is something like this is super important. It's not always easy with the political angle. Even the politicians have to say, "This was really worth it." And there were some, of course, some really important politicians all the way along like Barbara Mikulski and people who had great faith and have had great faith all the way through in the importance of pure science in NASA. Human spaceflight, super important, but so is pure science. And this is purely about wonder and about wanting to know. It's just because we want to live in a universe that we understand. It's pretty fundamental, right? It's one of our great talents as human beings, is to be able to dream and wonder and ask questions. So this telescope comes directly from that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It does.

Nathaniel Kahn: It's born in that. And maybe, that's even the greatest thing that comes out of it, is the realization that, that human instinct, which is such a beautiful thing, can succeed if we nurture it and support it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And we have to nurture and support it because there's not necessarily a great commercial reason for why you would build something like this. It's purely just about our own wonder. And the complexity of the task is so huge, you have to be able to make that case. But, clearly, the telescope made the case for us which is why I'm so grateful that it worked, because now instead of being like, "Well, this thing didn't work, but we're going to try again," now, we can point to-

Nathaniel Kahn: Right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... it as a shining example of this is what happens when you genuinely nurture pure science. And it continues to completely blow our minds.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I don't even know. Those pictures of the outer planets, I cried so hard the first time I saw that picture of Neptune. I was not expecting it, but it was gorgeous. Have you had that same reaction to some of these images?

Nathaniel Kahn: No. I totally agree with you, and it was a surprise image because we were expecting the images of the so-called Deep Sky. But we weren't expecting the planets and the outer planets. And I remember talking to Heidi Hammel who was a planetary astronomer.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah.

Nathaniel Kahn: And I think certainly one of the key people in proposing that we ought to turn the telescope as part of the first images. Of course, the Solar System was always part of the program. But why should we be turning the telescope in some of the first images towards the outer Solar System? And I know she pushed very hard for that, and I'm so glad she did. [inaudible 00:18:02]

Sarah Al-Ahmed: She's on our board of directors. She was very gung-ho about this, and I'm really glad they did because it's a good way to calibrate the telescope. But also, the last time we saw images up close of Neptune and Uranus was literally back in the voyager years. So it was-

Nathaniel Kahn: You're right. And, of course-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... a beautiful moment of.

Nathaniel Kahn: ... we realized at that point that they had rings, but we'd never seen it in the infrared. And those rings are so, I mean, they just glow with this mystery. And to think that you can actually, even with a small telescope, you could see Neptune and then to realize that this is what it actually looks like with these glowing rings. And no, I agree with you. It was a stunning image. But you talk about, part of it is do you remember when you first saw... You have a telescope. I'm sure you had one when you were young.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah.

Nathaniel Kahn: Do you remember seeing Saturn for the first time? [inaudible 00:18:53]

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh yeah. My gosh, because it's one thing to know the rings are there. You see the pictures in your books. But then actually seeing those beautiful rings through a telescope as a kid, it blew my mind because there it is. It's no longer in the realm of imagination. It's something I'm looking at directly with my eyes. And part of why I was so passionate about later working at an observatory so we could show, as many people as possible, that view because it makes it so much more real for them.

Nathaniel Kahn: I love that. What you've just said is so critical. It's this whole thing of seeing it with your own eyes, actually seeing it. And I hope that the images coming back from the telescope and maybe even the film, I mean that would just be my dream. But the idea that maybe seeing a film like this encourages younger people or anybody basically, but certainly young people, to go to an observatory, see with your own eyes, Saturn, the rings of Saturn. I remember talking to Mike Menzel, who's in the movie, one of the key engineers on the whole project, and has this sort of voluminous collection of notebooks in which he's written down from the very beginning, everything that happened along the way, everything that went right, everything that went wrong. It stretches for a whole bookshelf. This guy really knows the telescope backwards and forwards technically. And he said he had the same reaction you had when he saw the Neptune image. Basically, tears came to his eyes because he remembered as a kid growing up outside New York and having a little telescope in the backyard and pointing at his Saturn, and he would get kids from the neighborhood to come and look through and say, "Look, it's really there. It's really there." And he had the same feeling that welled up within him when he saw that image of Neptune. And you've said it beautifully, the idea that it's really there. It's actually out there. You're seeing it with your own eyes. And, of course, we're not actually looking through the telescope. We're seeing these images that, in fact, are not possible for us to see with our eyes because they're translated from the infrared. But the group that does that at the Space Telescope Science Institute is so careful about accurately translating it. It's a little like it's a tune that's being played on a piano that's too low for us to hear, and they've just translated it into an octave that we can hear, but it's the same tune. So it's as close as we can get to actually seeing this infrared universe. But when you look at those pictures, just knowing that they're actually there and the ones that are in the film, you sort of look at something like the cosmic cliffs, that vast tapestry, cosmic landscape stretching across the screen and just to know that 7,600 light years away, that place, it's a place, is really, really there, is mind-blowing. It's not made up. It really exists, not CGI.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As you point out, part of what this telescope is trying to do is to help us find whether or not we're alone in the universe, right?

Nathaniel Kahn: Yup.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And we don't have the answers to that yet. So when I'm looking at these images, I'm constantly thinking about the fact that we might be the first creatures to have ever seen this sight all that way across space and time. Here we are with this tool to help translate it to us. Maybe, we're the first ones to ever really see how beautiful that is. And there's something just so strange and compelling about that for me. I hope we're not the only ones to see it. But now, we can. And it makes me feel like it's more real now that it's witnessed.

Nathaniel Kahn: I agree with you, absolutely. And what do you think? I mean when you think on this question of are we alone in the universe, which is sort of, it's the beating great scientific question of the day. There are other important ones. I understand all deference to the particle physicists and, of course, all fascinating things and gravity waves, and it's all absolutely amazing. It's wonderful. But this question which I think has really captivated people's imaginations is this question of are we alone in the universe? And as you say, we may be the first generation. We are literally. We are the first generation that is technologically capable of answering that question. We have to want to keep looking. It's not going to be easy. We have to build, and we can get to that. We have to build yet more telescopes. And JWST has shown us how to do that, how to build big telescopes in space that are actually bigger than the rockets that they go up in. But we are capable of answering that question. What do you think? You're a science fiction fan. Do you think we're alone in the universe, or do you think there are many civilizations out there, or is there other life out there? What do you think?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, it's a spicy question because you never want to be wrong. But statistically speaking, as we're looking out into the universe, we're finding more and more places that have the conditions for life as we know it. And that's just a starting point. There might be all kinds of life out there that we can't even fathom. So are the conditions right for life out there? Absolutely. Statistically speaking, should there be life out there? Absolutely. So I'm definitely on team. I think it's there. But how much of it is intelligence, right?

Nathaniel Kahn: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's the real key question. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if there was some kind of microorganisms living on almost every water world where it's possible out there. If you told me that we were going to find life in the moons of Enceladus, I wouldn't be surprised at all. But it's that real big question. Is intelligence actually useful evolutionarily? Is it the thing that we're actually trending toward, or is it a very rare thing that we are capable of this level of understanding, right? But they've got to be out there somewhere. I just don't know how long we'll be looking for them, but that's okay. We're just going to keep trying until we do.

Nathaniel Kahn: We're going to keep trying. And you're absolutely right. There's so many great questions there. And, of course, there's this famous equation, the Drake equation that Frank Drake came up with a number of decades ago. And, actually, I don't know if you... Maybe, you've interviewed his daughter, Nadia Drake, who's terrific and would be a great person.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, I haven't.

Nathaniel Kahn: She'd be great for the show. She speaks so beautifully about how there were all of these terms in the Drake equation. And just in a nutshell, the idea was to say, "Well, how many stars are there in the galaxy? How many galaxies are there in the universe? How many stars might have planets around them?" There were all these variables that he was just, really at the time, making an educated guess about how many planets might have an atmosphere, how many atmospheres might be able to support life, and how many times might life actually evolve into something multicellular? How many times might it be? And until very recently, I mean, we knew how many stars there were in the galaxy, more or less. We knew how many galaxies there were in the universe. But actually, we didn't until Hubble gave us an idea. And now, we're getting even more detail that there could be way more than we thought. There could be as many as a trillion galaxies in the universe. But when Frank Drake wrote his equation, he didn't know that there were any other planets around the stars. That was a huge term that he kind of said, "Well, maybe one in every..." I don't remember what his assumption was, but his assumption was way under what has actually been found that virtually every star in the sky has at least one planet around it. And many stars we now know have multiple planets like our Solar System. So one of the ones we talk about in the film, the TRAPPIST system, has seven Earth-sized planets going around it, and many of them, and they're spaced. The the star, as you know, it's much cooler than our Sun. It's only about 2500 degrees kelvin. And it's much smaller than our Sun. It's more active too, which is a concern. It's sort of blowing off all kinds of flares and things. And all of the planets are actually orbiting very, very close to it. In fact, if you look at it, it's within the orbit of the distance in our Solar System, if you were to take the analog between the Sun and Mercury. So they're very close. But because the star is so much smaller and cooler, there's space in such a way that once again, as you know, three of them are actually in the so-called habitable zone, meaning that they should be about the right sort of distance to have temperatures possible that life might be possible. They're not too cold. They're not too close to the star, so they're not too hot. They're not too far away, so they're not frozen wastelands. They might be able to support the possibility of life. Now, we haven't found it. And there's still the question of can they hold it? Is there an atmosphere on them? These are all things that are being looked at right now as we speak. Right now, the team is looking at them. But just knowing that these systems, and that's just one of many, that these systems are actually there. When Frank Drake wrote his equation, he didn't know any of that stuff. So the question is, if we keep pushing now and we keep looking and we keep questioning, keep wanting to know, the next thing, I hope we find very soon, we found, of course, atmospheres around gas giants because they're much bigger, they're easier to observe, and the atmosphere is kind of puffy and big, but an atmosphere around a rocky exoplanet, wow. When that happens, that's going to be big, big, big news. And then, imagine if we find an atmosphere that isn't just carbon dioxide, because, of course, you've got Venus. That's a runaway greenhouse world. We got to be careful on this planet. I mean, it all comes back to us. We got to be around long enough to answer this question. But if we can find a planet that has an atmosphere that's not all CO₂, wow, we're getting close to answering more parameters, that should converge on the answer to what you're talking about, that it seems like statistically there should be life out there. And then, the idea, of course, of civilization, I don't know. There are all kinds of possibilities. If you think darkly about it, maybe civilizations don't last long because we have the tendency to destroy ourselves, right? And that's a-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Maybe but doesn't that make us even more precious, right?

Nathaniel Kahn: Exactly. We've only been so-called radio bright for a little over a hundred years. We're only sending out radio waves into space for like a hundred years. That's nothing in the history of the human species, let alone the history of the Earth. We're at the moment when our future is in our hands, literally. So we got to get it together for so many reasons. But one of them is we want to find out the answer to this question. We got to stay around long enough to figure it out.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Nathaniel Kahn after the short break.

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think what's really interesting talking to my younger friends and family is that there is a lot of this dire feeling.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Maybe, some of the challenges that we face are too large for us to tackle. And I think that's part of why telescopes like JWST make me feel all the more hopeful because they're an example of us across nations, across disciplines. You need the artists, the scientists, the engineers working for decades on end together to answer these complex problems, to create these complex machines. And together, we've done it. And, yeah, we probably tackled much bigger problems together as humanity, but these are examples of things that we can do together and look at the beautiful results. What a beautiful thing to show that when we collaborate in earnest together toward a goal just for our own betterment and understanding, we produce such beautiful results. So I hope that people come out of watching this documentary with the same feelings of hope and awe that I did. It might take us decades. It might take us centuries, but we are going to accomplish it, is how I felt coming out of that.

Nathaniel Kahn: I love that. I think you've so beautifully articulated the thing that makes tears come to my eyes when I see the movie again, that partly, just that it got done makes me very happy. But making a movie is hard, but nothing like building the telescope, but it's exactly what you're saying, which is this feeling that here is an example of people from, as you say, all these different countries, 14 different countries working for decades just because they want to, just because they enjoy the idea and the dream that we might be able to answer these great questions of how did the universe begin? How did we get here, and are we alone? These kinds of great questions, and the idea that you cannot answer those things by yourself. You have to, in order to just scientifically answer those things, and even get an inkling of an answer to the question of are we alone in the universe? You have to be able to build these wildly complex instruments which are extensions of our humanity. They're not just machines. They somehow have, there's some soul there. It feels like it to me. But you have to work together, and you have to be able to put aside differences and somehow join in this common goal, which is the goal that is completely positive, and awesome, and human. And I think that's the part that also moves me so much is to see the enthusiasm and the joy of these people in being part of a collective, a collective endeavor. It's not the solo me-me-me thing. And that era has really come to an end in science. It doesn't mean there aren't individual great scientists. Of course, there always will be people like that. But this idea that collectively it's actually necessary to work with groups of people, with large groups of people to achieve these big things It's not only it feels good. And it's not only right, it's also necessary. So there's something that feels like, I don't know, a kind of consciousness shift maybe that building an instrument like this represents, that it's showing us a little bit the way to what can happen if we work together and collaborate.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It was really beautiful seeing some of the personal stories of the people behind the telescope, seeing their joy before and after the launch.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You must have just hours and hours and hours of footage of these people and their thoughts and their feelings. And how did you even begin to decide what to include in this documentary and what not to?

Nathaniel Kahn: So difficult. And you're right. I have volumes and volumes and just tons of footage of amazing conversations, interviews, and events. But there was also this kind of sense that, well, if we can create something in 40 minutes, that gives a feeling for kind of the two part. The film really takes place in two parts. One is the dream and the building of the telescope. And that part, as I worked with the editors, and I must say I have an incredible team that we all work... We are also a team. We're a lot smaller than the web team, but the JWST team, but we are a team. And as we worked together, we realized that the building of the telescope, because these images kept coming in, the building of the telescope got smaller and smaller and smaller. So in 40 minutes, the telescope launches after about 12 minutes into the film. So it gives you a taste of what it was to build it. But it certainly doesn't go into the kind of depth that one could have or that we would've liked to have. But the idea was to create a forty-minute IMAX film that really could give you a feeling for this incredible mission and for what had been seen in the first science images. And, hopefully, it opens a door and that people come out of the film and just want to know more because there's no way you could put everything no matter how long the film was. And in a sense, it requires that you kind of go on your own and start investigating yourself. So if the film serves that purpose to inspire and create this spark of wonderment and imagination and collectively this feeling in the room also, what's one of the things that's so great about an IMAX theater is it feels like a great stadium, and there's this event that's happening. It's a movie, but it's like a movie plus. It's an event. It feels a little more like live theater to me on a certain level. And part of it is too, the screen's so big that people are always looking in different places. You look around a normal movie theater, everybody's looking at the screen. They're just looking straight ahead. But in an IMAX theater, they're looking at lots of different places in the screen as these images happen. And there's something wonderful about that, that reminds me of the theater. So 40 minutes is hardly enough to tell the story of the telescope or the story of the universe. But the film gives you enough of a feeling hopefully for it that you just go out and want to know more. I don't know. We kept telling ourselves, "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay," as things got shorter. But then, you mentioned this thing of the images. And so, we knew we wanted the film to take place in two parts. One was the dream, if you will, the building of the instrument, and then, what happened, the results, what we saw. And as these images were coming down as we were editing the film, we realized we want to get more and more and more of these things in. And so, the part of building the telescope got shorter and shorter. And then, the images really kind of take over. And I'm so blessed to have had Michelle Williams narrating the film because her narration just takes us on this beautiful cosmic journey that is very personal. It's what I love about her narration. And we worked on this together and had so much fun doing it, was finding a voice for it that was very human and conversational and accessible. It wasn't something that was imposed from the outside. It comes from within the movie. And her voice has as much wonder about what she's seeing as we have. She's not telling you what's happening. She's experiencing it with us. And I think that that's part of what carries, or it's a lot of what carries these images. They are our cosmic story. And as more and more of them came down, we realized that we could string them together in a certain order. And luckily, the people who chose what to observe and what to photograph were very wise in this, that they chose things from the very distant universe to super vast, many, many galaxies to more intimate looks at galaxies, to star-forming regions and these beautiful nebulae that look like painted great abstract canvases to the planets in our own Solar System. So being able to string those things together and then to have Michelle's voice tell you this story woven with the people who built and used the telescope, it's a great tapestry, that is our cosmic story in miniature. 40 minutes was tough. It was hard to fit in that container. These images kept coming down. So we had to find a new place for it. And things kept getting moved around, but it only made the story more. And knowing that I had Michelle to tell it, it meant that I could find places for the images. And they were moving up until the last day. There's one kind of Easter egg image. I don't know if you remember it, but there's an Easter egg image in the film that actually occurs twice, but it's the cosmic question mark.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh yeah.

Nathaniel Kahn: There are these two galaxies that are colliding, looks just like a question mark in space which, of course, is so appropriate. Anyway, I had to include that image, and we stopped the online. We were in the process of doing the color correction and the online. We got the image, and people wanted to kill me for adding something like that at the last minute, but we just had to because here was this beautiful image that also encapsulated the whole story. The cosmic question mark had to get it in. So the film definitely organically changed as we made it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, if it helps anecdotally. As I was exiting this place, I was wearing a Carina Nebula dress with the JWST print on it.

Nathaniel Kahn: Were you?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was. And a little kid actually who had just seen the film ran up to me and asked me where I got the dress, started asking me all these questions. So in the least-

Nathaniel Kahn: Okay.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... you got one kid super inspired. So I'm sure this has been playing out all over the place.

Nathaniel Kahn: [inaudible 00:40:37].

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm wondering, have you had any reactions from any of the people from the JWST team that have seen this film?

Nathaniel Kahn: Yes. We had a really fantastic screening. We showed the film at Udvar-Hazy, which is the Smithsonian Theater down by Dallas Airport. And it's a really, really nice, beautiful IMAX theater. And because it's kind of close to Goddard Space Flight Center and close to NASA headquarters, about maybe eight or 10 people who were in the film were in the audience and joined me on stage. And it was so fun to hear their responses. They really enjoyed it. They reveled in it. But it was also so exciting to see them immediately engaging with the audience and with all of these questions. The film sparks questions. So instantly, there are all these questions. And you mentioned young people. I've now toured a bit with the film. And the most interesting questions come from the kids, and they're incredibly knowledgeable. One kid said to me, "Why didn't you include an neutron star?" And I was like, "Oh my God." It's captured the global imagination. I mean, JWST images were on the jumbotrons at Times Square.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The days after those images came out were just so strange because they showed up all over the place, giant screens around the world, concerts. And so, that was about as close as I could get to really experiencing those images on a big screen up until this with the IMAX.

Nathaniel Kahn: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And what blew my mind was the fact that you didn't even need to up-res these images. They're just so large already that they're practically made for a screen that size, and there's really no other way to experience them like that.

Nathaniel Kahn: That's true. We should talk about that because the images themselves, I mean, for instance, the Carina Nebula image is 8K. So it's a huge file. And the colors that were produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute, we didn't mess with them. They're just beautiful. They're just gorgeous. And they have them in a color space, which is 16 bit color. They can produce them at that level. So the numbers of colors and the depth of color information, that's there coming back from the telescope is so high that it's just tailor-made for large formats. So that was surprising to me. I realized when we put them on the screen for the first time at that scale, that they completely held up. And as you say, this is the way to experience them because you're immersed in them. You're not looking at them. You're in them. That was the fun of working in the IMAX format for me. There were other things that were fun too, which was that... And I had to learn this, and I'm still learning it. Obviously, I'd like to make another IMAX film now. You just start to get good at something. And then, you want to try it again. But one of the things that I learned was that the editors and I, when we were working on it, we put one of our cuts up on the screen, and we realized that we could slow down the editing process. We could slow down the edits so that things remained on the screen for a lot longer than you would normally allow something to be on the screen. So there are fewer cuts in the film than you would normally have. And that's really because it takes... I mean, these images are so big, and the resolution is so high that you want to allow people to look around and take the image in. It's not just like there's this, and then there's this, and then there's this. You need to have something up there. And we put a very slight move on. In some cases, we're pushing in very, very, very, very slowly because if you move too quickly with IMAX, everybody gets sick. So just the idea that we could slow it down is also something that I think that was something that I also got very excited about because so much of what we are experiencing in movies and in life is so fast. It's as if we're in a movie, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. This is happening. That's happening. Everything's going. You're looking at your screen. You're grabbing your coffee. You're doing this. It's all sort of this kind of very choppy. So being able to make a film that not only allowed but demanded that you slow down, that the form itself demanded that we slow down was such a revelation to me as a filmmaker that I could do this. I could slow it down the way that... I mean, some of my favorite films are very slow. They unfold. They creep up on you. You're watching, and there's this beautiful long take in something. And suddenly, you don't know why you're crying. Look at a film by Ozu or something like that, and you look at this shot that goes on for a very long time. And why are you suddenly crying? It's almost this mysterious weird thing. But part of it is just that you're being forced to slow down to just kind of be. So I do think maybe that's part of the effect these images can have when they're presented at the right scale in the right format. They force you to just be.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you come out the other end with this just beautiful kind of sense of our place in the universe and all of us striving together to try to understand it more deeply. And I'm so glad that more people are going to get a chance to go see these images at this scale on these screens to see the story that you've told. And I hope it gives them just as much hope as it gave me, and that everybody who gets a chance to do this, I know there aren't a million IMAX theaters across the world, but if you do live near one, please go out and see this because it'll give you a good moment to really appreciate life and what all of this is. So thank you so much for making this film. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to see it.

Nathaniel Kahn: Thank you, Sarah. It's been great to be with you. I'm very, very grateful to be able to talk to you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Likewise.

Nathaniel Kahn: So I'm glad you liked the movie.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I'm sure so many other people will. I'm going to put links to the website for this IMAX experience on our website for this episode, so everyone can go check it out themselves and hopefully find their nearby theater so they can see it as well.

Nathaniel Kahn: Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Deep Sky is currently available for viewing in the United States and Canada. But as I hear it told, they're going to try to roll it out in other countries over the coming months. So no matter where you live, keep an eye out for this film at your local IMAX. It's absolutely worth it. And in the meantime, if you're looking for more Nathaniel Kahn JWST magic, you can watch his 2021 Emmy Award-winning feature documentary called The Hunt for Planet B. Now, let's see what our chief scientist, Bruce Betts, is up to. It's time for What's up? Hey, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So I got really lucky. Amber, our coworker, took me down to the California Science Center, and I got to watch Deep Sky on IMAX on its debut day. It was the first time anyone got to see it on the West Coast, so I feel really lucky. And it was freaking beautiful. It was so cool.

Bruce Betts: That's so cool. So it was big space images.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. It was part documentary. You get to see the building of the telescope. And then, you get to see all the awesome images on the IMAX screen in their full resolution. They didn't need to up-res them or anything. They're just that big. And it was so beautiful. You got to go see it, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, I do. And we played it with the California Science Center. We like them. They have stuff.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's awesome.

Bruce Betts: It's cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. The Endeavour, the Space Shuttle Endeavour that's there right now is about to get packed up for its new home. So it's like the last moments to go see it there. I have so many fond memories of being under that space shuttle there. My first moments actually seeing it there was when I was judging the California state level Science & Engineering Fair there. So it was all high school students with all their school projects underneath the space shuttle. I can't think of a cooler place to be for that many days.

Bruce Betts: That's really cool. We did some fun random space fact videos there If people want to check them out.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm going to have to look those up and put them on the page for this because I haven't seen those.

Bruce Betts: Oh, they're good. I wandered around and talked about actual Mercury, Gemini, Apollo capsules about Endeavour. And it was fun to have genuine props of the Viking replica, Viking Lander replica. Good stuff. Well, I will have to go see that. I look forward to it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was going to ask though, I mean, JWST images are so big that they make sense on a giant screen like that, but what other space images do you think would just be really startling on an IMAX screen? It's hard to hit that kind of resolution, but-

Bruce Betts: Well, flashback, this is only space related because they're headed to space. But watching many moons ago, the first IMAX I saw had space shuttle launches and stuff inside the space shuttle, and they did a great one with Hubble, so that kind of thing. And then, Mars images, we've got some stunning, stunning panoramas that are many, many pixels. And so, that would be fun. Just the Earth itself from space is always spiffy.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I bet Cassini images would be really pretty on a big screen.

Bruce Betts: Well, yeah,

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Like, oh, those pictures. I don't know. I think it's 100% the Cassini end of mission video they made. But anytime I think about Cassini now, I want to get emotional.

Bruce Betts: Cassini did some amazing stuff and all sorts of Planetary Radio episodes talking to the PI and others about it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And still to this day, they keep coming up with cool new things. We did that episode about the ring rain a few months ago. It's so cool. Well, before we move on to our random space fact, I wanted to share a really beautiful letter that I received a few days ago. Last week, we were talking with Steven Smith about Nasa's STEM Program and the engagement programs that are going on there as we do the lead up to the Artemis program. And something that he mentioned was their First Nations launch program, which works specifically with Native peoples, both in the United States and in Canada to launch things. But also, they're learning a lot about how to work with the land and manage your resources so that we can take that wisdom with us to the moon. So Norman Kissoon from Banburyshire UK wrote in to say, "I'm a retired aerospace engineer, and one of the first lessons imparted to me was not to reinvent the wheel. I was therefore very impressed and uplifted to listen to Steven Smith's comments regarding the respect being shown to Indigenous Nations and their valuable knowledge." And I can't read the entire letter, but I really love that he wrote that in, and that made me really happy to hear. I loved that part of that episode. So I'm glad it resonated with people. We've gotten an uptick in people actually writing our email, and I'm really glad. Please continue to write us at our email because I read all your messages, and I love them.

Bruce Betts: Do you read mine?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yes. But I joke about this around the house. You don't know this. You send one-word emails, and you're the only person I know who does that. I'll send you an email, and you write back just like, "Yes."

Bruce Betts: Oh, yeah, I did do that. I think about it though. It's like, "Do I want to? No. I got stuff to do." I think it's chill. I didn't know I'd become a joke though, but that's even better. I'm glad you enjoy them instead of get offended by them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: No, it's a meme around our house. It's good.

Bruce Betts: Oh, no. Bruce memes. Did you want a random space fact, so we stopped talking about Bruce memes?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Let's do it.

Bruce Betts: Okay, just a second. Random space fact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I didn't know your voice could go that low. That was impressive.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. I didn't either. So Gemini VII, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, Frank Borman passed away recently, astronaut from Apollo 8 going around the moon, but also Gemini VII. And it set the record, something that is kind of obvious if you think about it, but isn't obvious otherwise. It was the longest duration flight for anyone and until 1970 when there was a Soyuz that instead of the 14 days that Borman and Lovell did in a tuna can, the Soviets did 18 days, but just, gosh, imagine just sitting there doing all your stuff with someone right next to you in a little tiny space. It was nasty and-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Pretty gross. Although after living through the COVID era in a tiny apartment with my partner, I feel like I understand what that might be like.

Bruce Betts: We should try zero gravity sometime.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: [inaudible 00:53:26].

Bruce Betts: No. Anyway, that was an impressive mission and taught them about long space flight, but it was far longer than any of the Apollo missions, which came later. So it's kind of nifty. Eventually, we started Skylab and space stations and all that good stuff, but it's impressive. Another little Frank Borman tidbit, interestingly, he was the only astronaut on the Apollo 1 Fire investigation board.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Really?

Bruce Betts: Yeah. I might have thought there would be more, but he was the only one. Thank you, Frank Borman. All right, everybody. Go out there, look up the night sky and think about whether there's a bustle in your hedgerow. Thank you, and good night.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week to share results from NASA's Lucy Mission Flyby of Asteroid Dinkinesh. Surprise, asteroid Dinky is actually more than one object. You can help others discover the passion, beauty, and joy of space science and exploration by leaving a review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but helps other curious minds find their place in space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions, and poetry at our email at [email protected], or if you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment or a question in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our members. We worked together to save JWST when it needed our support. And we're just going to keep at it until we accomplish all of humanity's space life goals. You can join us as we work together to solve the mysteries of the cosmos at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.