In August, mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were holding their breath, waiting for a signal from the Curiosity rover. They were hoping the spacecraft would survive a seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and lower itself down gently on a never-before-tried landing system some called “the right kind of crazy.” It worked. But the history of Mars exploration has been strewn with failures – of the previous 39 missions targeted for Mars from around the world, 15 were successful and 24 failed.
What laid the groundwork for Curiosity’s success? How has the understanding of Mars changed over time? The new documentary by Blaine Baggett, an Emmy award-winning producer/director/writer and director of the office of communication and education at JPL, describes the challenges of NASA’s first attempts to send spacecraft to the Red Planet. For much of human history, Mars was no more than a tiny, reddish dot in the sky. But, starting in the mid 1960s, we finally started to get the first close-up data from Mars, with the first digital cameras ever built and other instruments. The data took an excruciating amount of time to come off the clacking teletype machines, but in rolled grand views of an ancient, cratered surface, polar caps, canyons and volcanoes. These were nail-biting, risky missions — fraught with issues that engineers had to deal with on the fly — and full of confusing data for scientists to wade through. The story, told through archival footage and interviews with key scientists and engineers, starts with JPL’s efforts to build and fly the first spacecraft ever to visit Mars, Mariner 4, through the 1976 arrival of the Viking orbiters and landers.
A screening of the new documentary, “The Changing Face of Mars” will be held on Jan. 23 at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium at 8 p.m.