Hayabusa movies might be a plus for science

By Motoko Kakubayashi 14/02/2012

Over the weekend, the second of three films (four if you include a documentary originally made for planetariums that was later released on the big screen) about the spacecraft Hayabusa opened in movie theatres across Japan.

Hayabusa (Japanese for Falcon) was the first unmanned spacecraft that traveled to an asteroid, collected a sample of it, and came back to Earth with the sample intact.  A team of scientists at Japan’s space agency JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) designed and guided Hayabusa during its seven year trip over which it traveled six billion kilometres.

I’ve seen movies about science or scientists before, but never so many movies made by different film companies about the same mission.  So what makes it special?

For one, it is a story that has inspired Japan.  After it was launched in 2003, Hayabusa experienced power failures, engine breakdowns, and at one point its communication with Earth was lost for more than a month.  Its failures had gotten huge media attention.  Eventually, most of the media lost interest.  But through it all, the scientists remained persistent and dedicated.  They found ways to fix the problems, and in 2010, Hayabusa landed safely back on Earth in the Australian outback.

The spacecraft’s return became front page news, and was praised by everyone, including the Emperor of Japan.

Each of the three films being released tell Hayabusa’s story from the point-of-view of a scientist involved in the development team, and the challenges they faced.

20th Century Fox’s “HAYABUSA”, which premiered in Japan last October, tells the story from a fictional researcher character’s perspective, but things she says and does are based on real life accounts by JAXA scientists.

Toei company’s “Hayabusa: Harukanaru kikan (Hayabusa: the long return home)”, which opened in cinemas a few days ago, depicts the obstacles overcome by the project’s manager, played by Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe and based on Hayabusa’s real project leader Junichiro Kawaguchi.

Shochiku’s “Okaeri, Hayabusa (Welcome Home, Hayabusa)” is the only movie made in 3D, and has a side plot revolving around one of Hayabusa’s engineers and his family.  It is set to be released in March.

An added bonus is the movies are a chance to show people what scientists do, and how important their jobs are.  They might also be a good way to promote JAXA’s space projects and scientific research, both to taxpayers and a future generation of scientists.

Whether it’s successful in doing so though, we’ll have to wait a few more years to see.  In the mean time, I better go and check it out at the movies.