Monday, April 24, 2006

Roving Mars

I went to see Roving Mars this weekend, and was pleased to find it the best IMAX film I have seen since The Dream is Alive. It also played to a large crowd of people who turned out on a rainy day to see it.

The audience was suprisingly pulled in and awed by the science content in the film. Films that feature NASA scientists explaining things in detail usually make people, especially kids, get sleepy and shift in their seats. Because the content of Roving Mars is well edited, the drama of discovery is intact. When a NASA scientist tells us why they think Mars once had surface water, the visuals and the science talk work together, sharing the knockout moment as decades of work and research pay off.

Although I loved every minute of the movie, there were two parts that stand out in my mind.

When you see the Mars Rovers close up in IMAX, you can appreciate how complex they really are. On TV or in small images, they look pretty simple: solar panels, wheels, shock absorbers, a robot arm, and other assorted gadgets.

Up close, you see that they are teeming with wires, cables, and mysterious boxes filled with high-tech gear. These are not toy robots that a teenage gearhead could cobble together in his dad's garage with a soldering gun; these are very delicate and complicated instruments that no one person fully understands. To see the workmanship up close makes you appreciate the engineering prowess of NASA's geeks.

The other part that connects with me is seeing mission control on the day of the landing. Computer graphics show what the landers went through on their way down: the fiery ride through the thin Mars atmosphere, the landing airbags expanding like a space-traveling puffer fish, and the bouncing landing on the red soil. No earthly camera could capture that, so we see it through CGI.

But the cameras do capture the people in mission control. The men and women, with their headsets and computer screens, know all too well that it only takes is one missed signal, one malfunction, and all their work goes flying off into space, or is smashed on the martian plains. When a tiny purple line appears on a readout monitor, only then is it confirmed the rovers have reached the surface safely. Cheers and applause fill the room as the first pictures from Mars scroll on the main screen. The joy of this moment in the control room gives some human warmth to a movie about a very cold planet.

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