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Behind JPL's '7 Minutes of Terror' video on risky rover landing

July 12, 2012|By Jon Bardin | Los Angeles Times

At Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge, experts are gearing up for the Mars rover Curiosity to touch down on the red planet at 10:31 p.m. on Aug. 5. But not everyone at JPL who’s supporting the mission is a planetary scientist or aerospace engineer. Arguably, the coolest job at the lab belongs to John Beck, the filmmaker behind the “7 Minutes of Terror” video that is one of the most-watched offerings on YouTube.

The video is fast-paced and set to dramatic music. One of the featured lab employees is engineer Adam Steltzner, who explains that it takes seven short minutes for the rover to travel from the outer atmosphere of Mars to the dusty Martian surface and 14 long minutes for a signal from the rover to reach Earth from Mars. So, Steltzner says soberly, “when we first get word that we’ve touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive, or dead, on the surface for at least seven minutes.” Cut to black. Cue swelling music.

Many viewers have expressed surprise that such a high-quality video was produced by NASA, which has a reputation for an overly dry communications strategy focused on facts and figures rather than people and stories. But Beck has been turning out compelling videos for JPL since the late 1990s. He contributed footage to Nova’s one-hour features "Mars Dead or Alive?” (2004) and "Welcome to Mars," (2005), the IMAX documentary “Roving Mars,” (2006) and National Geographic’s Emmy-winning documentary “Five Years on Mars,” (2008) all of which cover JPL’s various rover missions.

For “7 Minutes,” Beck shot all the footage, composed all the music, directed the movie –- and produced it to boot. He said he wanted to convey to viewers that the mission is risky and the potential for failure is high—a sure reason for people to tune in for the main event in August.

“I really wanted people to get the sense that, you know, this mission is really crazy,” Beck said in an interview. “It’s almost comical how crazy it is. And I really wanted to make the engineers seem vulnerable.”

Beck, whose childhood hero was Neil Armstrong, said his goal is to bring a sense of wonder and humanity back to NASA. After the golden age of famous astronauts, Beck says, NASA “became generic and faceless, and it was just all about what a great job NASA does. But people want to see the space jockeys.” Given JPL’s mission to explore the solar system robotically, its scientists and engineers have becomes those space jockeys.

Beck was low on the JPL totem pole in 1998 when the Mars Pathfinder mission was gearing up. He proposed making a documentary about the mission, and the mission’s program director approved. The resulting 35-minute film, “The Pathfinders,” won gold at the 1999 Chicago International Film Festival. The film humanized the Pathfinder engineers, chronicling their successes and failures as they prepared for and carried out the mission. “That was what got this whole thing going,” he said.

Since then, Beck has made numerous short films for JPL, many of which are available on his YouTube page (linked here), or on JPL’s YouTube page (here). He is particularly proud of “The Martians,” a series of beautiful short documentaries that detail JPL research and the scientists behind it, including the development of the rover’s parachute. The entire series can be seen here.

Beck detects more than a hint of irony when he hears complaints that NASA does not do a good job of communicating publicly. “When I started here back in the ‘90s, we were specifically told not to do things that were cool, because back then people complained that we were making entertainment with tax dollars. Now we’re hearing the opposite.”

He is also surprised at how much attention the video has gotten –- more than 590,000 views on YouTube as of Thursday -- in comparison to other online work he’s done for JPL. “I’ve gotten kind of jaded by now because every now and then I make a video and think it’s going to be great, but then nobody sees it,” he said. “With this one, I don’t know why it finally caught on. I think it was the suspense — it feels a lot like ‘Mission: Impossible.’”

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