Probably the most remarkable success in America's space program (outside of being able to put humans on the Moon in 1969 after just eight years), has to be the story of two robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, trucking around on Mars for more than two years.
No one appears more surprised at their longevity than the teams of scientists and engineers who built and still operate these remarkable machines, except possibly the film crew that set out to chronicle their adventures for Walt Disney and IMAX.
"Roving Mars" takes us all on an unforgettable journey to the Red Planet, piggybacking on the wildest ride in the solar system. The Delta II booster ignites at Cape Canaveral, hurtling us on our way. Stages separate, motors fire, spacecraft spin and de-spin, Earth and Moon recede into the black. Then Mars appears up ahead, the next second we hit atmosphere and hundreds of events follow in lockstep with the parachute unfurling, heat shield dropping away, air bags deploying, retro-rockets firing, then dropping and rolling on the rusty surface, amazingly intact to start our mission of discovery.
This is not the normal fodder of films, even a medium such as IMAX, known for its forays into science and space. Half of all missions to Mars have failed. Why would a major studio bankroll a movie that might never even happen?
Director and writer George Butler makes documentaries. Prior to this, he was never even interested in space, although he was excited about exploration as evidenced by his previous IMAX film, "Shackleton." However, a serendipitous thing occurred.
"I was in my editing room in June 2000, editing my Shackleton IMAX," George told us, "and Tim Squyres, my editor ["Crouching Tiger," "Syriana"] mentioned in passing that his brother Steve was a NASA scientist in charge of a mission to Mars. Then he said the key words, 'They're sending two rovers to Mars with IMAX-quality cameras,' and I thought, 'That's a movie!' So, I went to meet Steve, and he was very cooperative, along with Sean O'Keefe [the then NASA Administrator]. Then every single source of IMAX funding in the country, and Canada, and England, turned us down. I could not get anyone to finance this film. Very late in the day, I went to Frank Marshall and he said, 'Yes.' It's quite amazing that a story this good would be rejected by [nearly] everyone."
Frank Marshall picks up the story: "My main job was convincing the Walt Disney folks to finance this project long before we had a story. There was a real leap of faith by the studio and they've been great. They understood what it could be if it worked, and thank heavens it worked beyond our wildest dreams."
With Disney behind it, "Roving Mars" started to take shape. Butler followed the team, (Steve Squyres, Rob Manning, and all the rest) as they built, tested, and launched the rovers. It was an arduous process, and no one at the time could guarantee success.
Even though we now know the outcome, we feel the uncertainty of each moment and live it on an IMAX screen several stories tall.
Squyres commended the film after seeing it for the first time along with several members of the Orange County Space Society. "I think it does a wonderful job of capturing the tension, the fear we all felt, the drama of the moment when we landed. IMAX is a visual medium, and we all felt the visual impact of some of those scenes was just stunning."
To capture Mars in IMAX, images relayed by the rovers were digitally mapped onto 3D terrain models. Even the landing sequence, which had the vehicle shrouded in its airbags tumbling about, was modeled as realistically as possible. As Steve explained, "The bouncing and spinning, that wasn't made up. That's real data from accelerometers and gyros inside the vehicle while it was landing. So those are the actual bounces we experienced. It was all there. It was really accurate."
Did anyone ever envision the movie would hit theaters and Spirit and Opportunity would still be going and going, like the proverbial energizer rovers?
"Absolutely not!" said Butler. "Steve Squyres and other bigwigs at NASA would say, 'The public policy is the rovers might live for 90 days, but we believe 30 days is more like it.' And my intention was to have the movie end with the death of both rovers and now both rovers are out there busy publicizing my movie, which is not a bad idea."
In "Roving Mars," we travel alongside the robotic explorers, experiencing the thrill of discovering a whole new planet, right along with the scientists and engineers on Earth. As George Butler says, "Clearly a mission like the MER [Mars Exploration Rover], is the type of thing that America seems to do best, at a time when America is struggling to do anything well. This is really a great moment. I also hope the film will rekindle this country's interest in its own space program."
Steve agrees. "In the last year or two, at the direction of the President, NASA has embarked down a road that will send humans back to the Moon and then onto Mars. If NASA does that, and they do it on a reasonable schedule, then I think we'll see humans on Mars in 20 to 25 years. That requires a national commitment to resources that may or may not happen. I think what's going to make that happen is getting people excited about exploration. That's part of what this film's about. "
I asked George if he felt a personal connection to Spirit and Opportunity.
"Absolutely, but mostly to the men and women that made them. My films are always character driven.
In theory, you could have just made a movie about the rovers but that's much less interesting than including the scientists and engineers as much as I could.
"My fondest hope," he went on, "is that I've made a movie that's big enough and wise enough to bring in audiences who normally don't go to IMAX movies, and still have a movie that appeals to children. It's a fairly sophisticated film and I wanted to try and attract people who just never come to IMAX films. If we can pick up the children's audience along the way, that's fine with me."
Frank Marshall agrees. "I remember my mom, when I was about ten, getting us up on the roof to watch Sputnik go by. It was really this exciting time, and that's what I hope the movie will show.
It makes space exploration and science look fun. It's just astounding, the achievement of this mission."
Traversing the wine-colored terrain, we see the rover tracks leaving a trail. But does it mean anything if we don't plan to go there ourselves? In the movie, Steve Squyres tells us that the ultimate goal is that someday we will be leaving our own bootprints in those same rover tracks.
That's what humanity and exploration are all about. Watching the computer display screens can only satisfy us for so long. I asked Steve if he ever just took a moment to go outside and gaze up at Mars in the night sky.
"Oh, yeah! You don't want to lose sight of that. It's easy to get bogged down in the daily details. Okay, let's see what filters we're going to use for PanCam sequence Papa-2117, that kind of thing. You lose sight of just how phenomenally cool this whole thing is. I loved going to the movie and sitting there having my jaw hanging open like everybody else. I love to sit down and just look at our pictures sometimes and turn off the scientific part of my brain and just enjoy the beauty of the place. And yeah, I go outside and look at Mars at night.
"The funny thing is," Steve continues, "Mars looks different to me now. The last time Mars was as close to Earth as it is now, was close to the time when we launched. I can remember going out on the beach in Florida, this is while we were at the Cape, and as you saw, we were desperately trying to make it to the launch pad, we didn't even know if we would do that, and I can remember in some of the moments of deepest despair when it didn't look like we were going to make it, walking on the beach at midnight, looking at Mars hanging out there over the Atlantic Ocean, and it just looked impossibly far away. Now I can finish a long flight operations shift on campus at Cornell and I'll drive home to my little house out in the woods, and I'll be walking up my driveway and I'll look up and there'll be Mars, and it looks real different now. I mean, I know what that place is like, and I know better what that place is like today than I did yesterday because I saw the IMAX movie."
Larry Evans is Chairman of the Orange County Space Society California.
NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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