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'Nova' still hopes for happy ending for special

Final minutes will be added once fate of Mars rover is known
/ Source: The Associated Press

The final minutes of “Mars Dead or Alive” promise to be as gripping as a movie cliffhanger and the best reality TV going.

The PBS “Nova” special details the building and launch of a Mars-bound rover set to land on the red planet Saturday — one day before the program airs. The ending, at this moment, is literally a blank.

The film’s final 2½-minute sequence will be hastily added when the fate of Spirit is known. The title is no exaggeration: Mars is a “graveyard” for half the spacecraft sent there, we are told.

Will the intrepid rover, hurtling toward Mars at 900 mph, beat the odds? Will the safeguards intended to ease its descent and cushion its fall, including a custom parachute and airbag, work? Will the brutal Martian landscape eat it alive anyway?

“I feel like we grabbed on to the tail of this thing and we’re just along for the ride,” Mark Davis, the film’s writer and director, said in an interview.

The Mars Exploration Rover team we meet in “Mars Dead and Alive” (8 p.m. ET Sunday; check local listings) appears cautiously optimistic about the chances of success. No one knows better the dangers that await on Mars — and the potential scientific bounty.

Frigid welcome for Spirit
Spirit, developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, will encounter what is described as a frigid, virtually airless desert of dust, wind and radiation. “Even for a robot, it’s a hostile environment,” the film warns.

But these are the challenges the rover and its twin, Opportunity, were designed to conquer. The second rover also is en route to Mars and scheduled to arrive Jan. 24.

“I think they’re going to do OK,” says Cornell University planetary scientist Steven Squyres, head of the Mars Exploration Rover project, sounding like a proud parent.

The rovers are intended to act as “remote-controlled field geologists,” scouring the Martian landscape for rocks to examine and analyze.

Landing sites have been chosen for persuasive indications of a watery past. The rover named Spirit is headed for Gusev Crater, a possible former lake, while Opportunity is to land at a spot where minerals that normally form in the presence of water were detected.

It’s a crucial question they could help answer, about whether conditions on the planet were ever conducive to sustaining life.

Mars is the nearest and most likely place life might have existed elsewhere in the solar system, a team member says in the film, and could illuminate human origins. “Maybe life evolved first on Mars and was knocked off the surface and carried to the Earth. Maybe we’re all Martians!” exclaims chief engineer Gentry Lee.

The stakes are high for the mission, officially pegged at $820 million, given Mars’ reluctance to welcome outsiders and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s recent Mars track record. In 1999, a mix-up between English and metric units caused the loss of an orbiter. A few months later, a software glitch caused a lander to crash.

Others have foundered as well. Attempts to confirm the survival of Beagle 2, a European Mars lander that was to have landed last week, have so far been unsuccessful.

NASA can count three successful landings on Mars, including the twin Viking landers in 1976 and the 1997 Pathfinder mission.

Tension-filled special
Tension pervades “Mars Dead or Alive” as the complex rovers and safety systems are developed. The mission could be undermined at any point, even by something as relatively simple-seeming as a parachute.

In one sequence, the team suffers a group depression when the parachute “squids,” or collapses, in a test. There’s little time to figure out what the design flaw is, and the problem is a potential mission-ender.

“Mars Dead or Alive” makes lively work of the unfinished adventure, with a dollop of special effects. The scientists themselves, enthusiastic and dedicated, make for good company.

“Super mega-bummer” is one engineer’s assessment after a test reveals yet another way for the vital parachute to fail. But NASA has faced such grand challenges before, a manager says, rightly predicting success.

Science filmmaker Davis was drawn to chronicle the project by its ambitious nature, its potential to erase the memory of the 1999 Mars failures and the story’s inherent drama.

He also had the pleasure of discovering how non-stereotypical the team members were.

“A lot of other scientists and engineers are focused on such a small subset of their field they don’t allow themselves often to get really excited about what it’s all about, the big picture,” Davis said. “But most of these people keep it in mind: ‘We’re going to Mars. It’s exciting.”’

Spirit was scheduled to land Saturday night. Footage of the landing sequence and the effort to communicate with the rover and affirm its survival will be added to “Mars Dead or Alive.”

If all goes well, footage from Mars will be added to the program for a rebroadcast on Tuesday, during the usual “Nova” time slot (8 p.m. ET; check local listings) — one rerun that bears watching.