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Documentary captures early Mars missions' red-letter days

'The Changing Face of Mars,' which chronicles JPL's first missions to the Red Planet, screens at Caltech on Wednesday night.

January 18, 2013|By Tiffany Kelly, tiffany.kelly@latimes.com
  • Mariner 4 took the first grainy photos of Mars.
Mariner 4 took the first grainy photos of Mars. (NASA/JPL )

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. The La Cañada Flintridge resident plans to complete eight films in the series. Last week, he chatted about his latest work.

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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

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