Imagine standing in Los Angeles, trying to shoot a basketball all the way to New York, where it must hit the basket without touching the hoop. That’s the magnitude of the challenge faced by NASA scientists and engineers in trying to land probes on Mars. Two-thirds of the time, they fail.
This is the story of the most recent effort to send two identical exploratory vehicles, named Spirit and Opportunity, 306 million miles to Mars in April 2004.
Oh, and that basketball hoop we’re trying to reach? It’s moving. The launch has to be timed exactly to the moment when Mars will be best aligned with Earth. As we see the engineers performing their last-minute tests, shredding the parachute they were planning to send to Mars, we realize that they have days — sometimes less — to figure out what went wrong and fix it.
Spirit and Opportunity have to be able to launch and fly like a rocket ship, survive the landing without burning up or breaking any of their instruments, drive like a remote (VERY remote)-controlled vehicle over rocky (VERY rocky) terrain, keep working through Mars-size “days” and report back, through pictures and geologic analysis, detailed data about what they find. It is so enormously complex that “No one person can understand everything about the vehicle,” says one scientist. “It’s burst the bounds of our brain.”
Unlike most IMAX films, which have a stately, almost static feeling, this movie has moments as immediate and involving as a feature film. Yet it makes great use of the size and resolution of the IMAX technology, using the images the rovers sent back to create an astonishingly vivid Mars landscape.
The visuals are magnificent but what makes the movie work is the story — the dream of Mars and the hard work that goes into getting there. It shows how cool science — and hard work — can be as we look at the range of questions and problems the scientists and engineers must solve.
Best of all, it shows kids something parents and teachers often forget to tell them: you have to make mistakes. Two-thirds of the Mars initiatives failed. “Mars is a spacecraft graveyard,” one scientist says. This is a movie about Mars and about dreams, but most of all it is a movie about how mistakes are not just okay but expected and necessary in order to learn what we need to learn to do what we dream of doing.
Parents should know that this movie has no issues of parental concern but will probably be of most interest to ages 7 or 8 and above.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the smartest scientists and engineers in the world expect to make a lot of mistakes before they finish. What can we do to make sure we make the right number of mistakes. Families should know that the names for the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were suggested by an 8-year-old girl named Sofi Collis, whose own journey is almost as remarkable as that of the rovers she named. If you got a chance to name a rover, what would you pick? If you could go to Mars, what would you do first?
Families who enjoy this movie will want to learn more about the Mars rovers and they read my interview with the people who made the movie. Families will also enjoy Tom Hanks’ brilliant miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, especially episode 5 about the design of the lunar module and episode 10 about teaching the astronauts to be what Spirit and Opportunity do in this film — geologists. They will enjoy Voyage to Mars by Laurence Bergreen and Roving Mars by Steven Squyres, who appears in this film.
Families might enjoy some whimsical notions of space exploration, including one of the very first movies with special effects, the silent film A Trip to the Moon (How do the explorers get home again? They jump off!), Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out, and Forbidden Planet, inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”