Mars, Dead or Alive

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The great PBS science series Nova scores another hit with Mars: Dead or Alive, capturing all the excitement surrounding the Mars rover landings of early 2004.

Originally broadcast just as the first of the twin rovers (“Spirit” and “Opportunity”) was experiencing temporary communication problems with Earth-bound mission controllers, this riveting hour-long episode chronicles the risky $820 million Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project from design to touchdown, dramatically illustrating (through the use of detailed simulations and sophisticated computer animation) the considerable chances of failure–a nail-biting gamble considering that fully two-thirds of all previous Mars missions never reached their destination.

Through rigorous testing and initial failure of the MER parachute system to the celebrated transmission of pristine photos from the “Spirit” landing site, we see just how intensely complex and emotionally involving the missions are, especially for Cornell University astronomer and lead MER scientist Steve Squyres and his devoted team of colleagues at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Careers are on the line as technical problems accumulate, and one feels the same mixture of dread, anxiety, and elation that accompanied the historic return of Apollo 13. A bonus interview with Mars-mission pioneer Donna Shirley puts everything into resonant perspective, celebrating science and the MER missions as an essential human endeavor.

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