Before we went to the Moon, George Ellery Hale took us to the stars. This is his story and that of America’s first journey into space.
The Journey to Palomar, the result of more than five years’ work by Los Angeles filmmakers Todd and Robin Mason, traces Hale’s remarkable life as he struggles both personally and professionally to build the great telescopes at the Yerkes Observatory (near Chicago), the Mount Wilson Observatory (above Los Angeles), and finally the million-pound telescope on Palomar Mountain (near San Diego), considered the “moon shot” of the 1930s and ‘40s. It was a struggle to invent the technology, so daunting that many said it couldn't be done. Again and again, Hale embarked on a seemingly impossible quest to persuade the richest men in America to contribute to his vision of American astronomy.
Hale’s observatories revolutionized our understanding of the universe. They also drove America’s growing preeminence in science and technology. Hale’s observatories enabled the greatest discoveries since Galileo and Copernicus, like Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery of the expansion of the universe. A dedicated scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, Hale believed America offered the best platform upon which to investigate and develop scientific truth.
His singular drive would push him beyond most men’s limits and ultimately his own. He struggled to overcome “Neurasthenia,” a nervous condition, brought on by overwork. His fragile constitution was no match for his “Chicago ambition,” as historian Kevin Starr says, and Hale suffered a series of collapses, including frightening hallucinations. As author Richard Preston describes in The Journey to Palomar, “Hale’s mental problems are very much a part of his creative genius, his brilliance.”
The Journey to Palomar unfolds like a three-act drama that follows Hale’s accomplished but difficult life and the achievements that continue in his name even after his death. The film depicts people from all levels of America working toward discovering the larger truth of the universe— from glass workers in Corning, New York, to geniuses like Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble to American titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Chicago streetcar baron Charles Yerkes. Sadly, Hale didn’t live to see the completion of his greatest masterpiece, the Palomar 200-inch Hale Telescope, but he succeeded in creating an “American science” and laid the foundation for today’s marvels, like the Hubble Space Telescope and tomorrow’s mega-telescopes for the 21st century.
More than a science film, The Journey To Palomar is the story of America's "can-do" spirit at its very best. The combination of Hale's dramatic personal story set against the backdrop of American history and humankind's reach into the far corners of the universe creates a film with appeal to viewers of all ages.