NASA’s ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ (& Carl Sagan)
SIMULATED SPACE ‘TERROR’ OFFERS NASA AN ONLINE FOLLOWING
NASA’s ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ (& Carl Sagan)Jul 13
SIMULATED SPACE ‘TERROR’ OFFERS NASA AN ONLINE FOLLOWING
By Kenneth Chang
New York Times
July 10, 2012
The video is called “Seven Minutes of Terror,” and describes, with the suspense and cinematography of a movie preview, what will happen next month when a one-ton spacecraft launched in November smacks into Mars.
“We’ve got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars, going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero,” Tom Rivellini, a NASA engineer, tells the camera with a grim face and deadpan delivery. “If any one thing doesn’t work just right, it’s game over.”
Posted last month on YouTube, the video has succeeded in an area where NASA has a mixed track record: using social media and other tools of the 21st century to whip up interest in space exploration.
Despite minimal publicity, “Seven Minutes” has been racking up views and attracting droll commentary on the impending arrival of the rover, which goes by the name of Curiosity.
“Come on, NASA,” one person said in a comment on YouTube, “All that is missing in this blockbuster trailer is Megan Fox as the chief scientist.”
Maybe NASA can get Mr. Moviefone to do the mission commentary.
Much of the space agency’s public utterances are dry stuff; recent news releases include “NASA Selects Contracts for Environmental Remediation Services” and “NASA Awards Five Universities Funding for Learning Opportunities.” Like other federal agencies, it is not allowed to spend money to toot its own horn.
“We don’t try to market,” said Robert Jacobs, a NASA spokesman. “We don’t try to sell anything. Our job is to clean the windows to give the American public a better view of their space program.”
And yet the space officials have tried to add a measure of cute and playful.
Three years ago, NASA ran a contest to name a module on the International Space Station. But the comedian Stephen Colbert co-opted it, exhorting his viewers to vote for “Colbert.” That name ended up winning, with more than 230,000 votes.
NASA put aside the results and named the module Tranquility, commemorating the landing site of Apollo 11. But the space agency did later name an exercise treadmill on the space station after Mr. Colbert.
As part of the educational program for the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to Hubble that has been troubled by delays and cost overruns, NASA created a game in which players create their own space telescope, but to underwhelming reviews.
“Too bad this game is not totally realistic so as to let people play with schedule and cost,” wrote Keith Cowing, a frequent critic of the space agency, on his Web site NASAWatch.com. “This way they’d REALLY learn how NASA satellites are built (or not built).”
This time, NASA seems to have a hit. The “Seven Minutes” video, viewed more than half a million times, starts with a computer-generated animation of a capsule falling toward the Red Planet, then uses stark lighting, thumping music, fancy graphics and dramatic narration to tease the landing of the Curiosity, a $2.5 billion mission that aims to see if the building blocks of life existed on early Mars.
On the East Coast, the landing will happen in the wee hours of Monday, Aug. 6 — or nighttime on Aug. 5 on the West Coast — and it will be competing for mindspace with the Summer Olympics. That is not stopping the Atlanta Science Tavern, which organizes popular science talks, from going all out for an evening that starts with five talks on planetary science and segues into “full-fledged party mode” at midnight when NASA television coverage of the landing starts. The festivities will conclude at 3 a.m.
Already 173 people have signed up. “It’s science,” said the group’s director, Marc Merlin, “but it’s also a public celebration of scientific achievement.”
Mr. Merlin said he was thinking of bringing a model of the Mars rover that would descend on a rope à la the lighted ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. “That would be the decoration I would like to do,” he said.
Technically, the seven minutes of terror will be more like 21 minutes of suspense. The capsule containing the Curiosity will hit the top of the Martian atmosphere just before 1:11 a.m. Eastern time on Aug. 6. The rover will be on the surface about seven minutes later. The only uncertainty is whether the rover will be in one piece or in smithereens.
On Earth, no one will know the outcome for almost 14 minutes as the spacecraft’s radio signals travel 150 million miles from Mars.
“When people look at it, it looks crazy,” says Adam Steltzner, a NASA engineer, in the “Seven Minutes” video as he describes the Rube Goldberg-esque landing process — heat shield, parachute, rocket engines and finally a hovering crane that lowers the rover to the surface.
Text flashes across the screen: “6 vehicle configurations,” then “76 pyrotechnic charges.”
“Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy” Mr. Steltzner goes on to say, before asserting more confidently, “It is the result of reasoned engineering thought.” Pause. “But it still looks crazy.”
The slick video is “definitely a step up,” said Reid Gower, a 26-year-old Canadian who was so frustrated by NASA’s previous efforts that last year he put together NASA snippets into a promotional video that he thought the space agency should be making (see below). “That’s along the lines of what I feel they could be doing, something that’s education but also engaging. It’s not static and dry. It has emotional content in it.”