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(Appearing on public television and NASA-TV: check local listings for August and/or September)
On August 27, 2003, the planet Mars was nearer to Earth than at any time in the past 73,000 years. But in January 2004 humans got closer to Mars than ever before. That's when NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, will approach the Red Planet at some 12,000 miles per hour and-if all goes well-deploy parachutes, fire rockets, come to a halt some 15 meters about the surface, and finally bounce down on airbags made of fabric like that used for bullet-proof vests. After what project managers describe as "100 seconds of terror" involving more than 50 intricately precise pyrotechnic events, a 3-month science mission begins, searching for evidence of liquid water on Mars, and environments which may once have been home to life.
Images courtesy of NASA from Dan Maas' animation
But the rovers' journeys started long before launch or landing. BOUNCING TO MARS goes behind the scenes to tell the story of their design and development, in the words of the diverse team of men and women who brought the robots to life. Shaped both by the "up" of the success of the 1997 "Pathfinder" spacecraft with its small "Sojourner" rover, and also by the "down" of the failure of the two 1998 Mars missions, the Mars Exploration Rovers project has been a battle against time, technical challenges, and budget. From approval in summer 2000 through launch in summer 2003-an unusually short time for a mission of this complexity-it's been a continuous struggle involving thousands of men and women at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, other NASA centers, and private companies and universities across America. They've been confronting tests and trials no less impressive than those showcased in "reality TV," but far more authentic and significant. This is heroic effort and extreme engineering in the service of answering one of humanity's oldest and deepest questions-Are we alone? It's "Monster Garage" meets "Cosmos", "Survivor" in space.
BOUNCING TO MARS features scenes in the world's largest vacuum chamber in Sandusky, OH, as engineers face unexpected failures in the airbag design they'd inherited from "Pathfinder." Raucous scientific meetings result in votes about where to land, and what to look for. A record-breaking cross-country convoy takes the spacecraft to the Cape, but even in the final days before launch the Mars Exploration Rovers team discovers potentially "mission-catastrophic" failures, resulting in what one researcher called "the hardest 3 weeks" in the entire project. Tough questions from review boards remind them about how important the Mars Exploration Rovers mission is to NASA and the nation, and how much is riding on their success, or failure. Two thirds of all missions to Mars don't make it, and BOUNCING TO MARS is the inside story of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission's efforts both to get to Mars and land safely, and do breakthrough science.
Images courtesy of NASA
Scientists and engineers appearing include Project Manager, Pete Theisinger, lead science investigator, Steve Squyres (Cornell), Project Scientist, Joy Crisp, system engineer, Jennifer Trosper, NASA's "Mars Czar", Orlando Figueroa, mechanical engineer, Kobie Boykins, and many more. the Mars Exploration Rovers mission is a mission that "looks like America", including men and women from every kind of background in key roles. Their candid comments take viewers behind the scenes of a major space mission as never before.
Geoff Haines-Stiles (COSMOS, Creation of the Universe, CHILDHOOD.)
Underwriters BOUNCING TO MARS and the ongoing "To Mars with MER" project is made possible, in part, by NSF, the National Science Foundation. Outreach and additional educational programming are supported by NASA, NSF, and other public and private partners.