L-5 in 3-D

by Michelle Evans, November 1996


I had the great fortune recently to travel to the first space colony located at the 5th Lagrange point in space. Since I was one of the first to make this journey I thought you might like to share my experiences.


L5 is a point along lunar orbit where the forces of gravity between the Earth and Moon make for a fairly stable neighborhood, just the type of place we’d all like to move to. It was also the rallying point for one of the National Space Society’s parent organizations: The L5 Society. Our final meeting was to take place aboard the first rotating cylinder built at the L5 point to house the first true space colonists. Now it also has a third meaning: It is the setting for the first ever IMAX space movie released in the 3-D format.


“L5: First City in Space” is a fascinating, exciting, but sometimes sterile look at what life might be like on this first space colony. When I first heard about this movie I was completely blown away by the fact that someone had actually chosen L5 for a subject. I thought the dream had disappeared into the dark recesses of the minds of most space activists. Now here it was, not only on the big screen, but in the IMAX 3-D format!


The story is simple. It is one hundred years in the future and a mile diameter rotating wheel has been constructed at the L5 point in space. Aboard are the 10 thousand people who have chosen this location as their new home. There are scientific laboratories, hydroponic farms, goat ranches, and everything else needed to sustain life a quarter million miles from our home planet.


Unfortunately, as we could have told them, too many people want to live and work in space. L5 is getting crowded. Its resources are being stretched too far. Dependence on Earth for resupply and expansion is something the residents would rather do without.


The primary element needed for the well-being of the colonists is water. Every settlement must be located near some source of water. A lake, river, spring, or even a deep-dug well is an absolute requirement before anyone can truly live off the land. In the case of L5, they decide that digging a well would ruin (well, actually puncture) their biosphere, so they instead must bring the well to them.

To do this they send a rocket stage to land on the volatile surface of a comet, then fire up the engines to change the orbit to intersect the L5 habitat. Once it arrives the water can be harvested at their leisure. When the rocket arrives at the comet it fails to ignite and a human must be sent to facilitate the repair.


The story is told as the remembrance of one of L5’s first-born, a 7 year-old child named Chieko. Since the narration she supplies is from thirty years after the incident, we can rightly assume that no matter the tribulations, everything will turn out A-OK.


“L5” was produced by Graeme Ferguson and his IMAX team that brought us “The Dream is Alive” and “Destiny in Space.” Through his work, Graeme has launched more people into space than NASA ever dreamed possible. In “L5” he certainly does not disappoint us with his stunning photography, with scenes like the space shuttle pirouetting above the earth as it approaches the Mir space station. These scenes alone will be worth the price of admission for OCSS members. But then he takes us further with a heart-stopping low level flight over the Candor Chasma area of the Martian Vallis Marineris, then ultimately to the construction of the colony itself in deep space.


The basic concept we see on the screen is a faithful rendering of the type of colony envisioned by Gerard O’Neill which led to the idea of the L5 Society in the first place. Working with artist and space designer Pat Rawlings, as well as NASA and JPL, the melding of computer graphics and live action gives an excellent feel for being there.


The 3-D format can be exciting at points but this story would have worked just as well in standard IMAX. What doesn’t work as well is the sterility of the environment and of the characters. Granted that at the time of the story L5 is fairly new, however, it would have been nice to see a world that looked more lived in—one we could all identify with. For that vision of an L5-type colony we’ll just have to stick with “Babylon 5” for now. I will definitely grant some excellent scenes that do work in 3-D. One is the section about the construction of L5, flying through the girders as the habitat takes shape. Later, when we are actually landing on a comet amidst the outgassing snowstorm of the nucleus you’ll find yourself ducking and dodging the rocks and snowballs.


The bottom line on “L5: First City in Space” is that it delivers us a grand and glorious vision of humans in space, while forgetting to include the humanity. Your socks will be knocked off by what you see, but you will have to wait for future endeavors to bring your feelings to the same height.