For those of us that grew up in the fifties the concept of going off to other planets was almost real. We watched the movies of people like George Pal and read the science fiction stories of authors like Ray Bradbury. In all of those tales we were able to shed the confines of earth and explore the planets of the universe. Well, we are not there yet but our generation has moved us off of this planet and begun to look around our solar system. While man has only step foot on the moon we have sent our robots, another staple of the fifties Sci-Fi, to do our exploring for us. In 2003 NASA sent a pair of robotic probes to the planet Mars. On June 10th 2003 Mars rover Spirit was launched. This was followed on July 7th with the launch of his brother probe, Opportunity. By January 2004 both probes had landed on opposite sides of the red planet Mars. Disney along with IMAX has made a DVD that is the realization of a dream for those of us that have followed the space program all these years. ‘Roving Mars’. This brings you to the surface of Mars as it follows the two robot rovers on their mission to explore our neighbor in the solar system.
The 45 minute documentary begins with a voice over by actor Paul Newman. As computer generated scenes of our solar system and the cosmos glide by he explains that the exploration of outer space began with man first looking up in wonder at the night time sky. The answers that began as myth now are being uncovered by human ingenuity and technology. The biggest question for many is ‘are we alone’. Searching for any evidence of life, past or present, naturally would begin with our neighboring planet, Mars. Recent evidence that free flowing water may once have been present on Mars gave a renewed interest in the possibility of life on that red, dusty planet. Leading the team who would investigate this question was Stephen Squyres, geologist and astronomer. In order to gather the facts needed to even start to understand this problem an up close and personal look at Mars was needed. This would require the design, launch and landing of probes to closely examine the surface of Mars. Squyres’ background made him the ideal man for the job. As a geologist he was used to inferring from the look and composition of rocks what environment formed them. The astronomer part of him could look up from the ground with the same wonder as ancient man once held for the sky.
We get to see the design and construction teams donning special clean suits to work on the robots. Their appearance at this point is little more than some metallic beams and gold foil but the sense of great promise is there. This reminded me a lot of the early manned missions where the staging sites were featured. There is something special about looking at a machine that will soon roam the Martian desert. It took over four thousand people to build the rovers. Each one of them an expert in their fields and filled with a certain pride known just how ground breaking this mission could be. These probes would not only have to function on the surface of Mars, they had to also be a space craft capable of getting there. Squyres describes it as shooting a basketball from Los Angles to New York and making the basket without hitting the rim. When you deal with the distances involved here even a minute fraction of a degree off would mean disaster. Since the track record with sending probes to Mars was not very good the decision was made to send a pair of them this time. Spirit proved to be a troublesome first child. Everything seemed to fail the first time around. It took a lot to coax it into working. Opportunity was a little easier going. Finally both were ready for launch. Every twenty six months Mars and Earth are aligned and close enough for the rocket to make the journey. If the team missed the deadline over two years would have to go by until the next window for launch presented itself.
The launches finally do go off and the two probes are on their way. It would take seven months to get to Mars; every minute of that time was filled with anxiety by the team on Earth. With machines this complicated with literally thousands of parts one small failure would leave the craft stranded in cold, dark space. The wait for the landings was like the birth of a child. There was the fear that something would go wrong juxtaposed against the anticipation of something new and fantastic. Eldest ‘child’ Sprit once again proved it had to go against the wishes of its creators. It landed some sixteen miles away from its landing site. Opportunity was the still the good ‘child’ landing on site and near a geological site that would be interesting in the search for ancient water.
Almost all scenes of the Martian surface are computer enhanced more typically completely computer generated. The documentary does give the impression of more in the way of a real view of Mars but this is, unfortunately, not the case. Still, the computer graphics here are stunning. Many younger viewers, jaded by computer games, may not be able to fully appreciate just how well done the graphics are. Looking back at the fuzzy, black and white video of Neil Armstrong on the moon these shots are right out of the imagination. Of course, the video here was intended for a hundred foot tall IMAX screen and it doesn’t translate to any home theater with the same visceral impact. The DVD offers a choice between full screen and widescreen. For most the impulse will be to go with the widescreen but in this case it would be better to stick with the 4:3 version. IMAX is designed for this aspect ratio and the widescreen version is matte so you loose some of the image on the top and bottom. The audio is presented in a rich Dolby 5.1. For the most part the sub woofer has little to do but overall the audio works well.
There is an interesting pair of featurettes included. One is ‘Mars: Past, Present and Future’. It looks at the role Mars played in science fiction, myth and reality. It gives a personal look from team members on how space exploration grew from something in their imagination to their actual careers. In contrast is ‘Mars and Beyond’, a Disney short made in 1957. It features Walt Disney and a robot companion looking at some cartoons that chronicle man’s quest to find out about the planets and the universe. I remember this when it was on television and it was great to revisit it now.
This is not what you might hope, a real look at Mars, but it does show the details behind one of the most successful projects NASA has had of late. It would be best in an IMAX theater but the program does hold up for DVD. This is a must have for any space nut and something to share with the family.