Answers from Mars

PBS NOVA documentary highlights the engineers behind the Mars missions.

2 min read
Answers from Mars

Mars: the planet that keeps on giving.

The successful summer landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Curiosity, captured the world’s imagination, provided a steady stream of new discoveries, and spawned a series of TV documentaries on the National Geographic and Discovery channels.

This week, NOVA’s Ultimate Mars Challenge—airing Nov. 14 on PBS at 9pm (ET)—joins the fray, not only chronicling the engineering necessary to make the landing, subsequent exploration, and scientific discoveries possible, but placing it in context with preceding Mars missions. (The program spells out what we learned from past missions that informs the current one, as well as what we hope to learn from this one that, budgets allowing, will inform the next.)

“One of the reasons Mars is still exciting is because it hasn't turned out to be a boring story at all,” said MSL project chief engineer Rob Manning during a NOVA press conference. “Every time we've turned a page, we've learned something more rich about this planet, that maybe there's something more to go. Now, we're going to start exploring Mars over the coming two Earth years. And a lot of it is, `What are we going to learn?’ And of course, we'll have to debate and duke it out with everyone else to figure out the right thing to do with limited resources.”

Challenge producers Gail Willumsen and Jill Shinefeld culled more than 60 hours of raw NASA footage and their own interviews for the hour-long documentary. They note that getting the project finished was a challenge. With discoveries continually flowing in from Curiosity, they were making changes right up to the day they needed to submit it to NOVA.

Billions of years ago, “Mars and Earth had similar conditions for life,” says Willumsen, who also directed the documentary. “It arose on Earth, but we don’t know if it arose on Mars. What we do know is that Mars changed radically: something happened and it went in a different direction. The exciting thing about the landing site, Gale Crater, is that it has Mount Sharp, which is a mountain of layered rock that is a chronology of Mars’ history. So they’re going to, theoretically, go through and read those layers and perhaps find out why it became the cold, dry planet of today. It’s a massive form of climate change.”

Among the more frustrating decisions the pair had to make in streamlining the documentary's focus, was cutting one interview with Nathalie Cabrol, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountainview, Calif. 

“The thing she said that really struck me was that the need to explore is rooted in all of life, not just Homo sapiens,” says Willumsen. “The impulse to explore is part of the survival instinct.”

 

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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