NOVA Returns to Mars

For nearly forty years, NOVA has been bringing viewers stories of exploration: From Mount Everest to Antarctica, from undersea volcanic ridges to toxic caves teeming with exotic life. But there is one destination we come back to again and again, always with something new to discover: Mars.

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(The recorded feed from the landing is in the video above) Watch NASA's live streaming coverage of the Curiosity landing beginning at 11:30 pm ET on Sunday, August 5. For a full listing of events on this channel, visit Curiosity Cam.

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(The pre-landing press conference is recorded in the video above) Watch NASA's live streaming coverage of the Curiosity landing beginning at 11:30 pm ET on Sunday, August 5. For a full listing of events on this channel, visit Curiosity Cam.

Why does Mars hold such fascination? It is Earth's twin gone wrong, so similar and yet so different. Mars shows us what Earth might have been; it is our cautionary tale, our there but for the grace of God planet. How did Earth get so lucky? Why is our planet lush with life while Mars is dry and desolate? Figuring out how and why our fates diverged is one of the great mysteries driving the exploration of Mars.

In the last decade, NOVA has "gone to Mars" three times, as we followed the scientists and engineers on the Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix teams. We were privileged to film them as they prepared, launched, and ultimately reaped the incredible scientific fruits of their audacious missions. This year, we're getting ready to visit Mars again as we follow the Curiosity rover now en route to Mars. Our film, which will premiere in November, will document what it takes to get Curiosity safely from Earth to Mars. The journey will be more complicated and riskier than ever before, as Curiosity is counting on an ambitious new sky crane landing system to lower it safely to the Martian surface. And unlike Spirit and Opportunity, the near-identical twin rovers, with Curiosity, we'll only get once chance to get it right.

Before Spirit touched down on Mars in 2004, principal investigator Steve Squyres reminded our crew that, at that time, two-thirds of all spacecraft that had ever gone to Mars had "died"--failed or crash-landed before they could do any science. Though the rover teams may consider it bad luck to speak this aloud, I saw it written on their faces the night that Spirit was set to land. It was one of the most thrilling nights of my professional life: Producer Mark Davis and I were camped out in the parking lot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We'd rented a truck so that we could edit the last three minutes of our show--the three minutes in which viewers would find out if Spirit made it or not--in time for our broadcast just two days later. No outside members of the media were allowed into the control room, but we had a direct feed so that we could see and hear everything as it happened.

I remember clearly that terrible pause when Spirit was supposed to be landing but there was no communication, so there was no way to know if the rover was safe or not. In the control room, the scientists and engineers all held their hands to their chests, literally holding their breath as they waited for Spirit to send the signal that it had landed safely. And when that signal came, the utter joy on their faces!

These incredible scientists and engineers--men and women who chose to devote themselves to this extraordinary project; who, in a split second, could have lost a decade's worth of work--are the heroes of our films about Mars. Through television, millions of Americans been able to share the exhilaration we all felt that night and to see the incredible ingenuity, resolve, and teamwork that go into a mission to Mars. As a filmmaker, moments like these are precious: They are the moments when we go beyond just informing our audience and have the opportunity to truly inspire them.

I remember that after the show premiered, one viewer wrote into say that it was "the most exciting hour of TV I have ever watched." What a wonderful compliment! But I know that the excitement wasn't created by our producers; it wasn't manufactured in the edit room. It was all thanks to the scientists and engineers who poured their talent and passion into making the dream of exploration a reality.

That evening at JPL, I knew that we would be making many more films about Mars. But today, I wonder: Are we writing the final chapter in a story that has captivated the planet? It seems that exploration is being squeezed out of the tightened federal budget. When will we land on Mars again? The answer isn't clear.

Yet I believe that it is part of our destiny to explore and learn more about other worlds. In doing so, we learn more about our home planet--and about ourselves. We reap the benefits of technical spinoffs like flexible body armor and panoramic digital photography, as well as a host of intangible rewards: inspiring a new generation to pursue science and engineering careers; endowing them with a sense of wonder about our universe and our place in it; and giving them a glimpse of humanity at its very best, united around a common and peaceful goal.

True to its name, Curiosity travels to Mars with a heavy payload of questions. Some of these questions will be answered, but others will surely lead to new and even more exciting questions. It is therefore my deep and sincere hope that Curiosity will not be an end but the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Mars exploration.

Written with Kate Becker.

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