Eyewitness to planetary history

August 8, 2012

By Fred Prouser

Sunday night: A crowded newsroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California awaited word on the fate of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The largest rover, Curiosity is about the size of a small SUV with a landing system never tried before. It was being lowered by a sky crane on cables as retro rockets fired to lower the rover near Mars’ surface.

Reporters braced their fingers on their laptops. Photographers, well we were all elbow to elbow in front of large video screens, watching mission managers in the control room, hoping and waiting for the first images from the rover to be flashed on screen. After many tense moments, black and white images appeared. Then the camera cut away but then back again. My cameras motor drive went into action as I and the others shot the images off the screen. It would be well over an hour before NASA posted the imagery to a web site to download, and deadlines were to be met on this most ambitious landing on Mars.

After I was certain no other images would be shown on screen, I headed to my laptop and filed the first black and white rover image to the Singapore editing desk, also alerting to them by phone that it was en-route. Literally within minutes, the image shot by the Rover from the surface of Mars were on websites around the world. The next images to come were the photos from the control room which were pooled (shared between news agencies), shot by Brian van der Brug of the Los Angeles Times and NASA photos from the control room shot by NASA’s Bill Ingalls.

I have covered various space missions and activities at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1992 for Reuters. From picking up color handout photographs shot by various spacecraft, before the days of Internet distribution, to the first Mars rover landing on July 4, 1997 to the sadness endured when the Mars Polar Lander mission failed to establish communications in 1999. I was even able to photograph the Curiosity rover as it was being built at JPL in 2011.

However, the atmosphere was decidedly different this night after the Curiosity rover landed successfully. At a news conference about one hour after the landing, joyous mission managers and support crew filed into the JPL auditorium giving high five hand slaps as they walked past the podium where mission leaders were set to speak to reporters. The procession went on for a good 15 minutes. I was able to capture the smiles on the face of Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager as he greeted each and every team member as they filed past at the most celebratory news conference I have ever attended.

It was then back to the newsroom to file the celebration photos and access NASA’s website to find higher resolution versions of the first three black and white rover photographs returned by Curiosity. After sending those to Singapore, it was time to head home at 1.30am.

The night also had its lighter moments. From time to time various celebrities invited by JPL to view the landing made their way to the newsroom or auditorium including actress June Lockhart from the TV series “Lost in Space”, musician will.i.am to actor Seth Green, a real science buff, who stopped by our workspace. He inquired about those tomatoes in a bag at our table (brought to share from the garden of fellow photographer Robyn Beck). This prompted a tomato photo op of Seth posing with me. One never knows what will transpire during an assignment.

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