'Roving Mars': Documenting a Red Planet Success

A documentary about the journey of NASA's wildly successful Mars rover missions premieres this week at IMAX theaters nationwide. Alex Chadwick goes to a screening of Roving Mars and talks the filmmaker and to the scientists and engineers who worked on the rovers' mission to the Red Planet.

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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News, though in the next few moments from Mars, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Mars is the setting, and really the site for, a new giant screen IMAX documentary film opening this weekend. It's called Roving Mars and I got to see an early showing of it a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: I was in the company of some movie goers who practically are Martians.

WAYNE LEE (Chief engineer, Mars Rover Program): My name is Wayne Lee; I was the entry decent landing and chief engineer for the two rovers.

PAULIE ESTERBROOK(ph): Paulie Esterbrook and I was the telecomm lead system engineer.

JUSTIN MACKEY (ph): Justin Mackey and I worked on the imaging system and all the cameras.

ROB MANNING (Flight system chief engineer): I'm Rob Manning I was landing manager for the landing phase of the project.

CHADWICK: So these might be some of the toughest critics on earth, certainly the most knowing, for a movie about Mars. And here's how they reacted.

WAYNE LEE: It's breathtaking.

ROB MANNING: Awesome job. I mean I sat there through the whole movie with my jaw wide open. It shows me Mars the way I've always known it looks. Just fantastic. It's a great film George, you hit this one clean over the fence. This is great.

CHADWICK: George is the filmmaker George Butler. He made the classic body building movie Pumping Iron thirty years ago, more about him in a moment. But now all these excited people gathered around him in the lobby after the show, these are the people who put the real stars of Roving Mars in the picture.

(Soundbite of whooshing)

CHADWICK: The stars are the two little self powered wheeled robots that drive around exploring Mars and sending back streams of data about what they've found, including pictures. Really amazing pictures. When the scientists planned this mission they decided to include on the rovers a pair of cameras mounted about where your eyes would be if you were standing there. So, on the IMAX film, you practically are standing there. Steve Squires is a professor at Cornell and Lead Scientist for NASA's Mars Rover Exploration Project and here he was in that theater for this screening and afterwards in the lobby.

Prof. STEVE SQUIRES (Cornell University): You know I mean I saw those scenes and it's yeah, that's what it looks like and it renders it better than you can on any computer screen. When the thing lands, when it bounces along in that crazy sort of ball arrangement, that bouncing, the bouncing that you saw was taken directly from data from the space craft. That's exactly what it did. That is precisely what those spacecraft did when they landed yeah.

(Soundbite of film, At this point and time we should be on the ground.)

CHADWICK: A lot of the film is constructed from still images from the rovers. Other parts are a blend of pictures and very real looking animation. Like the sequence where the safety raft lander carrying the rovers plunges towards Mars on a parachute and then boings and bounces along the planet surface to eventually stop. Earlier in the film you get to see NASA's tests of these landings and some of them do not go well.

Mr. ADAM STELSNER(ph) (Engineer): Well the drop was successful. Yeah. The fact that the parachute exploded, not a good thing.

CHADWICK: That's Adam Stelsner from the film. He's the engineer whose team designed and then redesigned the parachutes. You also see him in the control room on landing day watching the data streams as the moment nears and he looks very anxious. You're the person who says that was the chute we were going to send to Mars.

Mr. STELSNER: Yes, that was the chute we were going to send to Mars. Luckily that's not the chute we sent to Mars.

CHADWICK: When you watch the craft, the rover, descending on to mars...

Mr. STELSNER: Yes.

CHADWICK: Aren't you kind of on edge, I mean you know how things come out, but still it's going so fast when it's going down. Is that really what it looks like?

Mr. STELSNER: Yes it is and it is something that's quite suspenseful and feels almost a little insane at times because we come screaming at the planet and put on the brakes at the very last second. Kind of like something out of a roadrunner cartoon or something. And so watching it animated here kind of makes it more viscerally attached to you and it's a little chilling at times.

(Soundbite of blast)

(Soundbite of film, We are now at an altitude of 73 miles moving at a speed of 12,192 mph, expected parachute deploy in five seconds.)

(Soundbite of blast)

(Soundbite of film, Parachute's been detected.)

CHADWICK: This is an unusual movie; it feels like a g-rated thriller. Danger, excitement, misery, joy; but George Butler's earlier Pumping Iron documentary made Arnold Schwarzenegger famous and other films he's working on now feature a possibly extinct woodpecker and a long time college football coach. He's been at this a long time. Never let anyone touch your shadow he likes to say, just keep moving and someday you may land in a theater lobby surrounded by starry eyed scientists who are grateful that you have taken them to Mars.

Mr. GEORGE BUTLER (Documentary filmmaker): NASA has checked very carefully every image in my film and we've passed muster so I know that it fulfills the best nature of any documentary film which is the truth.

CHADWICK: You wanted to tell the story of the scientists. You want to tell the story of landing on Mars, of exploration. But, your heroes are two machines. Isn't that a problem for you just in terms of story telling?

Mr. BUTLER: All of my films deal as powerfully as possible with character and character development. What's nice about those rovers is that there are 4,000 scientists and engineers who consider them Klouseau's(ph) close relatives of the rover said that people are speaking for the rovers and the rovers speak for the people who made them.

CHADWICK: Did you think you were interested in space before you made this film?

Mr. BUTLER: I knew when I began this film, almost nothing about the space program. One of the great things about what I do as a director is to find a subject to make a film on and then learn every single thing I can about it and that's the pleasure of making one of these films.

CHADWICK: Documentary filmmaker, George Butler. His movie Roving Mars premiers Friday at the IMAX Theater in Washington's Air and Space Museum and opens at IMAX theaters around the country this weekend.

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