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Welcome to Mars, Curiosity!

Whoever said scientists and engineers are not emotional? Tonight gives lie to that old canard. Jubilation, tears, and hugs burst out in the control room at JPL as Curiosity landed successfully. It was a wonderful thing to behold, because no one deserves success more than this hard-working and dedicated group from JPL, responsible for sending a rover the size of a car to Mars.

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Everything appeared to go flawlessly. We've been hearing for months how risky the new landing system was, how we might not hear anything for several hours, how images would be long in coming. But when it happened, it was smooth as silk. Everything right on schedule. No moments of terror, let alone seven minutes of terror. And the images came right away, including the shadow of the rover on Mars.

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These engineers made it look easy. They showed us that the best way to deal with the terrifying possibility of failure is meticulous preparation, testing and retesting, bringing a lot of great minds together. Mars is a dangerous place. It has killed many of our space vehicles. It tests us every time. This landing tonight shows we still have the right stuff. Let's hope we use it, to plan and execute future missions. A great nation explores.

Tonight is just the beginning. The best is yet to come. Pictures of Mars from Gale Crater, images as Curiosity heads for a mountain that rivals Earth's tallest peaks. Information will flood in from Curiosity the field geologist and geochemist. Perhaps we will learn if the molecules we associate with life here ever existed on Mars. And then we will begin to sort out if we really are alone or if life once existed elsewhere.

A great evening. Curiosity is safely on the surface of Mars. Good night, Curiosity. Get some rest. You have a lot of work to do.

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A Long Night at JPL

Can you imagine what it must be like to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory team here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory? Thousands of scientists and engineers have invested years in the success of this mission in the interest of advancing our knowledge about Mars. We know from past missions that at least in the past, Mars has had two of the three conditions essential for life: running water and a source of energy. Curiosity could tell us if it ever had the third condition: organic molecules, those long carbon chains that all life as we know it has. Not only will we perhaps learn if Mars has ever had life, we could also learn what happened to it. After all, Mars and our own planet Earth were once on a similar trajectory. But somewhere around 3.5 billion years ago, we can speculate that something on Mars went terribly wrong. As a result, the Mars we see now is terribly inhospitable to life, whereas earth is teeming with it.

Being able to answer these questions, learning about Mars and about Earth, finding out more about the conditions essential to life--all that is at stake. It hinges on the success of tonight's landing, in a little less than an hour from now. But there's much more at stake--the future of continued space exploration and the role it plays in planetary science. A failure tonight could put an end for many years to an already faltering space program. NASA has no large follow-on rovers to Mars planned. MSL is it. Perhaps a success, a perfect landing followed by lots of captivating science, will encourage more planetary missions, more robotic exploration, and perhaps even, someday, a manned mission to Mars.

And no one would deserve it more than the engineers and scientists responsible for this ambitious and risky MSL program. No one could blame them if they had a knot the size of Mars itself in the pit of their collective stomachs. But instead of nerves and jitters, there seems to be a strange calm pervading this group. They've tested and retested and everything seems to be on track. Mike Watkins, MSL's manager of navigation and mission design, just told us things have been looking so good, they didn't even have to make any last minute adjustments in trajectory. And Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer, said he's calmer than he's ever been on this program. The engineers have done all they can, and now it's up to the laws of nature, riding on the back of an amazing group of people's hard work and dedication.

And, of course, for them it will be a long night. The landing is just step one. Then they will be struggling mightily to get some pictures--to get Curiosity to begin to satisfy our own curiosity about Mars.

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Next Stop, Mars

I arrived at JPL around 6 pm tonight and already the parking lot was filling up with press. There's true suspense here. Will Curiosity land safely on Mars? When I was here years ago for the landing of Spirit, it seemed a forgone conclusion that the landing would go as planned. If the engineer had doubts, they kept them to themselves. But with this mission, there's a frank acknowledgement of the risk. MSL is huge and its landing system is brand new. And more than this one mission is at stake. As one NASA public information officer told me, the whole future of the planetary program hinges on success tonight.

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Standing beside a model of the Curiosity rover.

Now, the die is cast. This morning Earth time the engineers at JPL spoke to MSL and sent their last message before landing. No earthling will speak to it again until it's on the surface of Mars. Throughout MSL's long journey, according to Nagin Cox, part of the mission's operations team, they send commands to the rover three times a week. Mainly what they get back is telemetry--power, attitude, velocity, etc.

So what did they say this morning? Did they send last minute instructions? "Don't talk to strangers!" "Get plenty of sleep!" "We love you no matter how things turn out. We know you did your best." Most of all, "If you meet any Martians, send pictures!"

No, none of these sweet parental admonitions. Simply they told it to change its timer so it won't expect another call from Earth for 93 hours. As Nagin Cox explained, if MSL expects a message and it doesn't come, it might think there's something wrong with its mechanisms for receiving the message. It might start fiddling with things, changing settings, adjusting antennas. And that could mess things up. We don't want MSL doubting itself at the last minute!

Once Curiosity is safely on the Martian surface, hopefully, communication will resume. They'll command the rover every day. The scientists and engineers will all shift over to Mars time. Already, Nagin is wearing two matches--one for Earth time, the other for Mars. But its not really necessary. There's even an app for that!

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Nagin's watch collection--two for Mars, one for Earth.

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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.


Video streaming by Ustream

(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.


Free live streaming by Ustream

(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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Watson and the Fear Factor

The NOVA episode Smartest Machine on Earth chronicles the four-year-long effort of a team of computer scientists at IBM to build a machine named Watson (after IBM's founder) that can play Jeopardy! -- a TV quiz show that represents for many the essence of human intelligence.

Working on this episode has caused me to reflect on a time many years ago when I made a NOVA called "Mind Machines." That film, like this new NOVA, is a reflection on the quest to create machines that can think like we do - in other words, artificial intelligence. In those days, that quest was just beginning and the results were pretty primitive. My film demonstrated a machine that could understand natural language well enough to manipulate different colored objects in a small world of blocks. It showed Eliza, a computer program that could respond like a psychiatrist, but was really just filling in the blanks based on what a "patient" had just typed in. The film began with a clip from Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its unforgettable scenes of the engaging but psychotic computer HAL running amok.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, back then inspired two kinds of reactions: faith that it could be done and fear that it would. Most of the computer scientists I consulted were among the faithful. One accused me of being a "human chauvinist pig" when I expressed doubts. On the other hand, a few experts and most ordinary people worried that smart computers, like HAL, would get out of control and start running the world. What would happen to human values, these people asked, if silicon brains were more powerful than our own?

A lot has changed since then. First, a little thing called the Internet has come roaring into our lives. Unlike anyone I knew at the time, all the experts at MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon that I interviewed had computers on their desks and could communicate with each other through cyberspace on a system called the ARPANET. A few years later, it's not just the experts who are benefiting from these innovations. Computers have become relatively cheap and accessible. Many of us have not one but several of them. We can communicate with each other across time and space and have a world of virtually limitless information at our fingertips.

And that's why, I believe, the fear factor has declined. We're used to computers. We know how dumb they are. We understand that they are limited to a narrow range of tasks we program them to do. The versatility of small children - the way they pick up language, navigate around obstacles, and learn to play games - is still out of reach for machines. And that's why, when we watch a computer named Watson compete against Jeopardy! champions, our admiration is less for its silicon brain than for the human ones that labored so long and hard to create it.

Publicist's note: Smartest Machine on Earth will premiere Wednesday, February 9 at 10pm on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings to confirm when it will air near you.

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Spider-Man Bites Back

I definitely should have known better than to take on fans of Spider-Man whose knowledge of the story, including Peter Parker's background, is so much greater than my own. Trust me, in the Broadway musical, any scientific interest on Peter's part was so minor it was virtually imperceptible. And since this musical is today's incarnation of the Spider-Man story, I think we need to concern ourselves with what, if anything, it says about attitudes toward science now. I maintain that the evil scientist is such a convenient villain because it plays on a stereotype that is deeply embedded in our society. And it's holding us back from getting us where we need to go to create an innovation economy that will assure that the standard of living we enjoy today will be maintained for future generations of Americans.

Some readers felt that Spider-Man reflects the precarious balance between good and evil in science. Yes, as I said, there is ample evidence in the Nazi experiments, Tuskegee, and the ever-spiraling arms race, to name just a few examples from the past, of the evil uses to which science has been put. Even when intentions are golden, scientific advances often have unintended and unforeseen negative consequences. But I think a good case can be made that the good to which science and engineering have been put far outweighs the bad. But whether or not you accept that, it's undeniable that our future is linked to innovation, and innovation is a direct outgrowth of basic science.

I have a picture on my office wall at NOVA brought to me by producer Doug Hamilton when he returned from shooting our documentary First Flower in China. It shows two Chinese children watching television, and across the screen it says "Love Science." That image is symbolic of a society that sees its future and the future of its children in knowledge and innovation. President Obama recently described this time as a "Sputnik moment" for our own society, but will we rise to the occasion? I may be over-thinking a comic book character brought to the Broadway stage, but attitudes are important. If when we think "scientist" we could think less nerd and evil and more progress, innovation, and wealth, maybe we would be further along the path to an economically sustainable future.

Just some food for thought, along with fervent wishes for a speedy recovery for Christopher Tierney, one of the actors playing Spider-Man, who fell from a platform during a performance on Monday when his safety tether snapped.

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NOVA to Spider-Man: Find Another Villain

I recently went to see the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The show was still in previews. The opening had been delayed because there were so many technical problems. In fact, the matinee I attended had to stop while the main character, Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, hung from a rope, wanly waving at the audience. Despite that, the show was a spectacle, with exquisitely costumed creatures rising up from beneath the stage and flying around the enormous theater. A couple of times, I thought Spider-Man might wind up in my lap.

If this show can get itself together, it will be a technical tour de force and provide some imaginative entertainment for kids and their families as well as old Spidey fans nostalgic for their hero. I will leave comments on the story and acting to more qualified critics, but I do have a bone to pick with this show--the choice of villain.

Spider-Man has a long tradition of "mad scientist" super-villains, starting with the comic books, going through the movies and now, the musical. I say it's time to get over it and to update this anachronistic obsession with evil scientists. But why be so bothered with a harmless fantasy? Well, anyone who has seen the latest results of international testing should be, considering that U.S. students ranked 23rd in science and even lower in math in the latest results of the international educational assessment PISA. If our future lies in the innovation economy, based on products that emerge from science and technology, our students need to step up their game. And to help make that happen, not only does our society need to invest in science education, we need to create an environment more receptive to scientific ideas and one that inspires boys and girls of all ethnics groups to consider science and engineering careers.

The Spider-Man super-villain scientist may be fantasy, but it is rooted in a distrust of science that pervades our society. To be sure, some wariness is justified; there's certainly ample evidence throughout history that science can be used for evil as well as good. But science and engineering have brought us longer and healthier lives, enabled us to learn about worlds beyond our own, and given us all the electronic gadgets we love so much, including the one I'm typing on right now. And if we want this progress to continue to improve our lives and to bolster our economy, let's stop picking on scientists and find another villain. There are certainly plenty of real ones out there.

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Remembering Robert Rines

In the year 2009, NOVA lost a very good friend - Robert Rines, who passed away at the age of 87. Bob was a man of many talents - a patent attorney who founded a law school dedicated to intellectual property law; a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and holder of more than 100 patents; a musician and composer who, at the age of 11, played a violin duet with Einstein.

 

One day more than a decade ago, I had lunch with Bob and he told me about an upcoming trip to Scotland's Loch Ness.  In 1972, Bob had what he always believed was a sighting of an enormous creature in Loch Ness, and ever after, one of his greatest passions was searching for the so-called Loch Ness monster, aka Nessie.


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With his talent for drawing the best and the brightest into his circle, Bob assembled a team of faithful followers and lots of high powered electronics to help him in his search. On the team was my husband, Sheldon Apsell, like Bob an MIT alumnus and an inventor. Sheldon accompanied Bob to Loch Ness for many years, and he was there in 1999 when, as a result of the enthusiasm generated at my luncheon with Bob, we made a NOVA documentary about the search for Nessie.