Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Media Mom on Mars

It was a great treat to interview the director, producer, and star of the new IMAX movie "Roving Mars" for the Chicago Tribune.

Mars in IMAX: Two rovers that just won't quit

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune
February 14, 2006

Imagine standing in Los Angeles and trying to throw a basketball into a hoop in New York City without touching the sides.

Now, imagine the hoop is moving.

That gives you some idea of what's involved in trying to send a spacecraft from Earth to Mars. Two-thirds of the time, it fails.Or so says the new IMAX movie playing at Navy Pier, "Roving Mars," that tells the story of the summer 2003 launches and January 2004 landings of Opportunity and Spirit, two exploratory vehicles called rovers. They are still sending pictures and data back to us, long after they were expected to run down.

In this film, photos from the rovers and animated footage meticulously based on what NASA has learned give us the most accurate vision of the Red Planet anyone has ever seen.

Producer Frank Marshall, director George Butler and Steven W. Squyres, the scientific "principal investigator" for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, talked about the film in interviews before the world premiere last month at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C."

We wanted to break the mold of IMAX movies," said Marshall, best known for blockbusters such as the Indiana Jones movies and "The Color Purple.""People think they're very educational but dry, and even boring. We tried hard to resist the omnipresent narrator who tells you what you're feeling. Instead, we got [Cornell University astronomy professor] Steve Squyres, who has infectious enthusiasm, and we have the heart-in-the-throat moments like a regular movie, what I do in my day job."There were heart-in-the-throat moments behind the scenes too.

"Our original idea was three acts -- building the rovers; the journey to Mars; the rovers die," Marshall said.

Act 1 looked firm: The rovers got built. Then, as the movie shows, an experiment shortly before launch tested the parachute to be used for the Mars landing. It shredded into irreparable tatters. Would there even be an Act 2?

Of course, eventually the rovers launched and landed safely. But that brings us to Act 3, when Marshall went from worrying that his movie would have no middle to worrying that it would have no end.Things on Mars went right. Righter than anyone imagined. The rovers, expected to operate for just 90 days, kept going like interplanetary Energizer bunnies.Two years later, they are still sending back data, and Marshall had to change his movie's theme."

We made [it] exploration," he said. "Humankind has always been great explorers -- what's over that mountain, across that water, where is the new frontier?"Butler and Marshall want this movie to inspire today's children the way the photos from the 1975 Viking mission to Mars did Squyres when he was in college."

I got a key to the Mars room [in the university library], before the Internet when you can find anything online," he says. "This was a special room with these Viking pictures on rolls of photographic paper. I was sitting on the floor leafing through binders and exploring a new world. I didn't understand what I was looking at, but nobody understood this stuff."

Squyres adds: "I walked out of that room four hours later knowing what I wanted to do with my life."

All three men are often asked whether we can justify the expense of Mars exploration when so many concerns on Earth are not yet resolved.Marshall pointed to the knowledge gained in mastering the engineering challenges involved in launching, landing and operating the rovers, not to mention analyzing the geologic data from Mars."

What if we found something that helped us cure cancer?" he asks.

Butler said pressing problems at home should never deter us from learning more about what lies beyond.

"When Vasco da Gama was going around the Horn of Africa, the Black Plague was rife in London. Part of the human spirit is to explore, and some of the most wonderful stories ever told are about explorers," he said. "That's what keeps you on tiptoes and alive."

But for Squyres, what matters is that what we learn about Mars helps us to understand our own beginnings."

A mission like this has no Tang, no Teflon, no spinoffs. It doesn't fill in potholes, put a roof over anyone's head, put textbooks into schools -- but it does put information in the textbooks. And questions about how life comes into being are of deep significance to every living being," he said.

What fascinates him, for example, is the way Mars rocks are both like and unlike what we have seen on Earth and the moon, and how the rovers can analyze the rocks to reveal not just what Mars is like now, but what it was like and what has changed.

"Geology is a forensic science," Squyres said, "looking at the clues and trying to find out what happened a long time ago."The pictures sent back from the rovers are instantly available online. But as vivid as they are, they do not convey what it is like to be on Mars the way the film does, according to Squyres.

"Every day I've been looking at pictures on a computer screen, but they don't come close to capturing the grandeur, the sheer visual impact," he said. "IMAX has a power to deliver that in a way that no one else has."

Butler, Marshall and Squyres want children to be inspired by seeing what Mars looks like and wondering what else there might be to find. The movie points out that the first person who will walk on Mars is not an astronaut now; it is someone who is still in school."My fondest hope," Squyres said, "is some 8th grader is sitting there watching the movie -- and then actually goes there."

For more information see Mars Rovers and NASA

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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