The Long Road to Mars: Launching NOVA’s “Ultimate Mars Challenge”

When PBS’ NOVA set out to chronicle NASA’s Mars exploration program and the still-unfolding story of the Curiosity, producers found themselves in an improvised dance of piecing together backstory, accommodating last-minute discoveries, and brainstorming contingency plans in case the landing didn’t stick.


After a whirlwind four months culling reams of NASA footage and scrambling for interviews, the producers of NOVA’s Ultimate Mars Challenge–airing Nov. 14 on PBS–momentarily suspended their documentary mindset during Curiosity’s landing night at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) last August.


“I got so caught up in the drama of the landing, and felt so much for the guys and gals we’d interviewed who’d worked on the rover, it started to feel personal,” says Challenge director Gail Willumsen, who also produced the hour special with Jill Shinefeld through their Los Angeles-based Gemini Productions. “The drama of the adventure and achievement to get the technology and engineering to work millions of miles away, and the steps to getting this to land left little leeway for error. If it didn’t work, I was going to feel so bad for them. How it impacted the show was secondary.”

Mars Ultimate Challenge producers Gail Willumsen and Jill Shinefeld in front of a Curiosity test replica in the JPL Mars Yard. Photo courtesy of Gemini Productions

From the show’s inception last March, NOVA senior executive producer Paula Apsell sought a balance between the Curiosity mission and the scope of Mars explorations–questions about the planet, how NASA has explored it, what it’s learned, what it still doesn’t know. The result is an hour overview that follows a handful of Curiosity scientists and engineers as they plot strategies to search for Martian life and design the rover, while placing their efforts in the connects of preceding Mars exploration missions.

“If the landing had not been as successful, we would have shifted that balance–between the vérité and reality TV aspects, and managing a bigger story of planetary science–and relied more on telling stories of other missions that failed, and included a forensic look,” says Willumsen. “We would have had to do a bit of CSI on what went wrong. Even if it had crashed, there would have been so much we would have learned. In fact, we were looking for those things [engineering that wasn’t working]. Otherwise we were afraid it would look too easy.”

In fact, one of the stand-out segments involves engineers troubleshooting why the rover capsule’s parachute didn’t always work in tests.

Turns out sticking the landing was the easy part. When NOVA ordered the doc last March, Curiosity was already en route. “We had to piece together the backstory, like putting a puzzle together,” says Shinefeld. That meant–on top of their own interviews and 10 hours of landing night material–sifting through some 50 hours of raw, unnarrated, unlabeled video taken by JPL, some of which took as much as two months for clearance. “Sometimes, you didn’t know what they were doing and what they were finding out.”


Adds Willumsen: “JPL is to be commended for taking the initiative to cover the process and take it seriously – using professional cameramen and HD video. We wouldn’t have a show without their library.”

Then the discoveries began to stream in, right up to the 11th hour. “That was more hair-raising than waiting for it to land,” laughs Willumsen. “We had the Nov. 14 airdate locked in stone, and had planned to deliver it Nov. 2. In the final week, of Oct 29, after we’d locked the picture and script, and finished the mixing, JPL held two teleconferences about their findings about the Martian soil and atmospheric studies. We moved heaven and earth to incorporate those. We had a four-minute sequence after the landing that gave us a little play to rearrange things. The narrator quickly recorded two additional lines in his home recording studio, and we finally finished it on Nov. 3. If they had found something monumental, it would have required a herculean effort to re-edit it in time for the broadcast.”

The layered rock of the Grand Canyon (left) is similar to that of Mars’ Mount Sharp (right), which Curiosity will explore next year. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Space geeks from way back, Willumsen and Shinefeld still plan to keep tabs on Curiosity’s findings.

“It seems that three to four billion years ago, Mars was like a twin of the Earth with similar conditions–liquid water, volcanoes,” says Willumsen. “We know that life arose on Earth, but did it ever arise on Mars? We don’t know. But we do know that Mars changed radically. Curiosity will explore a mountain of layered rock that will serve as a chronology of Mars’ history. That’s going to be very exciting.”

Click the slideshow for images of Curiosity’s development and program preview.

About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia