How I helped the space shuttle Atlantis on its final mission

Here is the full scoop on the NASA project that kept me so busy for the last few months.
It's about the space shuttle Atlantis.

While NASA donated the other remaining space shuttles to various cities across the US (see my pics of the Endeavor flying over LA here), the Atlantis is kept at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is now displayed at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex, in a grand new exhibition that opened to the public this weekend.
I had the honor to work as CG Supervisor / Lead Artist on this exhibit. I've always been a huge space nerd (previously worked on all 4 seasons of Star Trek Enterprise), so this was really a dream project for me.

The final mission of Atlantis is to amaze and inspire the next generation of space explorers. That's why the exhibit is not just the shuttle in a room with a little plaque. No, it's an immersive experience that pays tribute to the achievements and the rich history of this incredible vehicle. It's a friggin' real-life space ship! And you get to see it in flight!

Before you get to the shuttle you see is a 10-minute show in a dedicated 8K dome projection theatre. This is a bit of a foreplay, meant to create excitement and awe. That's where visual effects come in and let you experience weightlessness inside the cockpit, take you up-close to a docking maneuver with the ISS, let you fly inside a Hubble nebula, and take you on a ride with the Atlantis during atmospheric reentry.
I can't show you pictures of this spectacle, you have to go and see it in person. NBC News calls it "fantasy becomes reality and the experience is nothing short of magical."

Orbiting the Earth at 6-times speed

Big part of the experience is the 120-foot LED screen behind the shuttle. The clip playing there is now officially the longest CG shot of my career: it's 15.200 frames of CG animation (just over 11 minutes), describing a full earth orbit. Since the theme of the exhibit is laid out to show the shuttle in flight, this shot provides the backdrop to make this illusion perfect. I don't really expect anyone to stand there and watch the whole orbit; especially when there is a real space ship in the room. Yet, here is some background info for all the space geeks:

What you see is an orbit with a 55 degree inclination, which is the highest orbit that was ever flown on a shuttle mission. All my NASA advisors agreed that this is the most scenic route, covering the maximum amount of picturesque sights.
We start with a sunrise over the Pacific, fly over the Baya California and then cross US mainland in a north-east direction. We come across the Great Lakes, Canada, and then head across the Atlantic, and enter Europe over Great Britain (on very much the same path as transatlantic airliners travel). For dramatic purpose Europe is shown at night, so you get to see a dense network of sparkling city lights. The orbit continues in south-east direction over the Mediterranean, the Sahara desert, and the Middle East (at which point I switched back to daylight to showcase the fascinating desert colors). Then it gets dark again as we head towards the Antarctic Circle, where we fly through the shimmering green lights of the aurora australis. As we swing around we pass over the tip of Australia, cross the entire length of New Zealand, and head out into the Pacific. This is where the loop starts over at the beginning (foreshortening the Pacific crossing because this would really be a long and boring stretch).
In real life a shuttle orbit took 90 minutes, without the Pacific this may be 60 minutes. So my 11-minute animation is in fact showing the orbit at circa 6 times the original speed.

Numbers for geeks

Here are some statistics that show the astronomical scope of this project:
  • 4.1 Terabytes - total project data (after extensive cleanups).
  • 3.5 Gigapixel - texture for the earth surface alone (86K Blue Marble NextGen).
  • 9.2 Gigabytes - accumulated textures for the earth (incl. clouds, citylights, ect).
  • 6.2 TeraHertz - total processing power of our render farm (extended for all this).
  • 37,472 frames - cumulative frame count of all shots (over 26 minutes).
  • 10.5 Million - polygon count of our ISS model.

Software used

  • Modeling in modo, 3dsMAX, Lightwave 3D.
  • Animation and rendering in Lightwave 3D (Huge thanks to the fine folks at Newtek for compiling a special version for us overnight, which sped up render times in our custom dome camera by a factor of 4).
  • Shading with infinimap (which made it possible to render with such gigapixel textures at all, even in record render time!).
  • Composited and tested for dome projection in Fusion.


CG Visual Effects by Eden FX

  • Christian Bloch - CG Supervisor / Lead Artist / Compositing
  • Mark Hennessy-Barret - CG Artist (Spaceman sequence)
  • Anthony Vu - Modeling & Shading (ISS, Flight Deck)
  • Eric Hance - CG Artist (Swamp opening sequence)
  • Emmanuel Yatsuzuka - Modeling (Atlantis)
  • Dan DeEntremont, Keith Matz, Sean Jackson - Additional Modeling
  • Rebecca West - Project Manager
  • Carrie Stula - Coordinator

Mousetrappe, a Burbank, CA based design & production studio, has worked with Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, operators of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA, as well as PGAV Destinations and Nassal, to create an undeniably breathtaking media experience. Mousetrappe once again guides audience members through an all-new architectural projection adventure – a world where the intersection of rich storytelling and cutting edge technology creates a breathtakingly powerful experience.

Media Coverage

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