Changing Face of Mars reviews


NASA to Premiere New Mars Exploration Film

January 23, 2013 | Mike Wall

NASA is unveiling a new documentary film about the history of Mars exploration today (Jan. 23) to an audience in the Los Angeles area, and there’s a chance the movie could eventually get distributed nationally.

The Changing Face of Mars  premieres tonight at 8 p.m. PST at the California Institute of Technology’s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena.

The 90-minute documentary, which was produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), chronicles humanity’s efforts to explore the Red Planet, from the first flyby in 1965 by NASA’s Mariner 4 probe to the current work being done on the Martian surface by the agency’s car-size Curiosity rover.

Reminders of those two bookend missions will be on display at the premiere, which will feature a full-scale Curiosity replica and the historic “first image” of Mars — a hand-drawn color portrait put together in 1965 using data beamed home byMariner 4.

One aim of  The Changing Face of Mars is to highlight and preserve the contributions of the 1960s-era pioneers, who blazed a trail to the Red Planet that engineers at NASA and other space agencies are still following today.

“They didn’t know how to build a spacecraft; it had never been done before. There was no one they could turn to to ask how to build a spacecraft,” said writer/director/producer Blaine Baggett, who heads JPL’s office of communication and education.

“So I just have a tremendous respect and appreciation for those who came before, and I’m bound and determined to capture their memories and experiences so we have them, before they’re lost for good,” Baggett told

The Changing Face of Mars is the fourth installment in Baggett’s ongoing series “Beginnings of the Space Age.” None of the titles are available nationally at the moment, though Baggett said discussions about a possible deal to distribute all four are underway.

Baggett hopes the series includes eight or nine films eventually.

“There are four or five more films, if I can last out and they keep me here that long,” he said.

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Documentary captures early Mars missions’ red-letter days

January 18, 2013| Tiffany Kelly

The car-sized rover Curiosity had a clean landing on Mars five months ago. But planetary missions didn’t always run so smoothly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mariner 3, a probe sent to do a first-ever flyby in 1964, failed to get to the Red Planet during a stressful time at the space agency. Engineers were under intense pressure to beat Russia in the space race. Another spacecraft launched three weeks later, Mariner 4, eventually made it to Mars. It returned the first grainy close-up images of a foreign terrain.

JPL communications director Blaine Baggett explores those first missions to Mars in his new documentary, The Changing Face of Mars, which screens for free Wednesday night at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium.

Baggett, whose previous films include The American Rocketeer, Explorer 1 and Destination Moon, is on his own mission to tell the history of humans exploring the solar system. He plans to complete eight films in the series. Last week, he chatted about his latest work.

JPL in the 1960s and ’70s

“It’s really hard to imagine the pressure that JPL was under. That pressure really drove us to do extraordinary things even when the odds of success were low. The engineers only gave themselves a 30% chance of succeeding and getting to Mars.

“So when we succeeded, JPL management ended up in the Oval Office of the White House of Kennedy and LBJ. It was so important to the nation what JPL was doing.”

What we knew about Mars then

“Imagine, in fact it’s almost impossible to imagine, how little we knew about Mars in the 1960s. There was serious science speculation that there might be vegetation on the surface of Mars.

“There was serious science speculation that there might be water falling, that there might be clouds raining down liquids that would be a sugar type of water. All that changed with this first mission, where they looked at Mars and realized it looked more like the moon.

“The reason we call it ‘The Changing Face of Mars’ is every time we went back, we saw a whole other dimension of it. Our whole view of it changed. It kept surprising us and surprising us.”

First image of Mars was colored by hand

“When they were getting the data back from the first mission, first, they didn’t know if they got anything and it was coming back in a slow Morse code. The images were the last thing that got back. They got all the other science data back.

“Days go by before we get an image — days. The engineers were so anxious to see an image on Mars that they took the zeros and ones and stapled them to the wall and started color coding. They put together the first image of Mars by painting by numbers. It will be on display at Caltech [Wednesday night].”

Behind the scenes of the first missions

“What I think is exceptional about this film is the fact that there were cinéma vérité directors hired to see what was going on behind the scenes during the first missions. When I went into the film vault and found this, I just said, ‘Eureka!’ This is opening a door and going back in time and seeing how these events played out in real time.

“I think it’s just engrossing to watch these dramas. You see them arguing with one another. You see them worried. It’s a great human story as well as an engineering one.”

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