- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

Two years ago this month, jubilation reigned again at NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where scientists and engineers were monitoring the telemetry that testified to successful landings and deployment of an ingenious set of twin robots. Called Spirit and Opportunity, the machines landed three weeks apart on Mars, after journeys covering 300 million miles and lasting seven months.

Known more formally as Mars Exploration Rovers, the six-wheeled geological contraptions emerged from their cocoons ready for work. Far exceeding their projected life span, the Rovers remain ambulatory and responsive after traversing a lot of rocky, dusty ground and transmitting about 130,000 images back to headquarters. A new Imax featurette, titled “Roving Mars,” something of a second-birthday celebration, joins the repertory at both the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly this weekend to summarize the achievement.

The standard museum running time of about 40 minutes seems to shortchange this subject by perhaps 20 minutes. What’s on the screen is consistently absorbing and appealing, but one departs wanting more. These versatile camera- and tool-bearing carts seem to open up vistas on such a legendary source of mystery and speculation that something more expansive and something resembling an inspired finale — perhaps a cascade of images from the Rover abundance — would be welcome.

Paul Newman, whose voice has acquired an Ancient Mariner raspiness, is recruited for the prologue, but the principal narrator is a familiar figure from the Rover telecasts of 2003-04: Steven Squyres, the mission’s lead scientist, a squirmy but infectiously enthusiastic camera subject whose book, also titled “Roving Mars,” was presumably the handiest outline for director George Butler and his colleagues.

Mr. Squyres and several NASA and JPL associates address the camera directly in live-action footage. They recall the advent, engineering, construction and testing of the Rovers. An early comment by Mr. Squyres, likening them to origami, prepares us in a disarming way for the glimpses of how panels and instruments are tucked into the machine, awaiting the unfoldings that will make them effective explorers once they reach Mars. The live-action highlights also include a stunning sequence testing chutes in an air tunnel and the obligatory, theater-rumbling liftoff at Cape Canaveral.

Animation accounts for the aspects of the flights and the Martian jaunts that still defy the photographic capacities of space vehicles or the cameras installed in the Rovers. That leaves plenty of room for imaginative enhancement, especially when visualizing the final descents toward the Martian surface and the bouncing slowdowns achieved by the air bags that cushion the impact and then roll the Rover bundles to a gradual standstill. Mr. Butler and editor Nancy Baker orchestrate the animation and live-action expertly when intercutting the landing simulations with the reactions at Mission Control, where a suspenseful vigil gives way to relief and exultation.

It’s gratifying to share these sentiments in a pictorial format as large as the Imax system. Touchdown anxiety and happiness do seem magnified in a way that’s difficult to finesse in television news coverage, where the scale of everything tends to get miniaturized.

For many of us, the Rover outreach will probably be as far as we can reasonably expect to go with the Martian adventure in our lifetimes. The astronauts and machines destined to continue the exploration remain imponderable, but the movie reflects the optimism of people who believe in taking the long view.

***

TITLE: “Roving Mars”

RATING: G

CREDITS: Directed by George Butler. Written by Mr. Butler and Robert Andrus. Produced by Mr. Butler and Frank Marshall. Cinematography by T.C. Christensen, Reed Smoot and James Neihouse. Editing by Nancy Baker. Animation by Maas Digital. Music by Philip Glass.

RUNNING TIME: 40 minutes

WHERE: Daily showings at the National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue and 6th Street NW; and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway in Chantilly.

ADMISSION: $5.50 to $8

PHONE: 202/357-1686 or 202/636-1000

WEB SITE: www.rovingmars.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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