Documentary captures early Mars missions' red-letter days

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.

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

“When they were getting the data back from the first mission, first, they didn’t know if they got anything and it was coming back in a slow Morse code. The images were the last thing that got back. They got all the other science data back.

“Days go by before we get an image — days. The engineers were so anxious to see an image on Mars that they took the zeros and ones and stapled them to the wall and started color coding. They put together the first image of Mars by painting by numbers. It will be on display at Caltech [Wednesday night].”

Behind the scenes of the first missions

“What I think is exceptional about this film is the fact that there were cinéma vérité directors hired to see what was going on behind the scenes during the first missions. When I went into the film vault and found this, I just said, ‘Eureka!’ This is opening a door and going back in time and seeing how these events played out in real time.

“I think it’s just engrossing to watch these dramas. You see them arguing with one another. You see them worried. It’s a great human story as well as an engineering one.”

What: “The Changing Face of Mars.” Filmmaker Blaine Baggett and longtime JPL engineer John Casani will introduce the film.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, 332 South Michigan Ave., Pasadena

Admission: Free. First-come, first-served

More info: (626) 395-3847,

Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ or on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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