On January 4th 2004 the rover, “Spirit,” landed on the surface of Mars after a 40 million mile, seven-month journey from Earth. Three weeks later deployed as designed, the second rover, “Opportunity,” descended to the Martian surface, landing successfully. Now both vehicles are exploring, sampling, testing, and sending back stereoscopic images from the Martian surface to earth’s scientists. With an original envelope of just 3 short months to fulfill mission objectives of exploration as our robotic emissaries (an ambitious mission to say the least), these two rovers are still operational going on five years now. This can only be measured as success far beyond expectations.
In order for the Earth bound scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA. to accurately operate these twin rovers remotely form such a great distance it was deemed prudent to have an identical third rover here on earth. This rover could be used as a test vehicle in order to trouble shoot and replicate Martian conditions in the laboratory as the need and situations on Mars dictated.
The editors of Air and Space magazine asked if it was possible for me to create one of my signature images of a rover and scientific team. Our original intention was to photograph that third rover in the “sand box” at JPL laboratories, and include a couple of the scientists in the picture also. The editors wanted an image that speaks to the relationship between the rovers and the people who operate them. Because of the ongoing mission of the twin rovers on mars and specifically the latest situation of the rover “Spirit” being stuck in a particularly soft patch of soil on Mars, our plans for access to the third and now vitally critical rover had been placed on indefinite hold. Ultimately, the editors got a heads up that there does exist a functioning, drivable mockup rover that is used for display and trouble shooting by the scientific teams tasked with the Mars missions.
So for me as a photographer here is the problem: How do I shoot a mock-up rover in a semi official laboratory environment with four scientists interacting with that rover and not have it look silly? Remember, this is not an actual fully functioning rover loaded with tens of millions of dollars of scientific equipment. My fear was that the viewer would see this meticulously crafted picture as being “faked.” And, we would get caught pretending to work on a real rover by having the team pose for the photo. The second area of apprehension for me was that the viewer would perceive that this staged shot was pretending to be some sort of journalistic snap shot or spontaneous picture where we just happened to capture these guys working on the rover, again it would seem like I’m cheating. What to do?
What is needed was to take stock of the assets at hand: We have at our disposal a beautiful, very accurate, partially functioning rover mock-up, several large “Martian Tarps,” as many volcanic boulders as I need to borrow from the lab, four scientists that work on the rover mission and finally an office room. Sadly, this rover literally lives in a carpeted conference room where the scientists discuss issues of rover operations. After a little reflection, an appropriate concept that would fit for the materials and situation became apparent. Instead of pretending to have these four scientists working on a real Mars back up rover, we created a scene where they are setting up a real display rover, (the back drop fabric that is being unfurled indicates that this is indeed a diorama). Secondly, to address the idea that we are pretending that my camera is not there, and this is some sort of spontaneous snap shot, I chose to have the man on the far right side of the frame look directly into the camera, thus acknowledging to the viewer that they are aware of being photographed. We did not get “caught” cheating. We addressed the challenges straight up front. I think what we wind up with is a charming and beautiful scene of the four scientists setting up a display rover who know that they are being photographed for the cover of Air and Space. Like all of the shots I do in the series of American Pride and Passion, there is an element of artistic license involved, and we are inviting the viewers to these shots to join us, play along and enjoy the scene unfolding in the image.
For myself, working with the folks at JPL and the Mars mission teams specifically it was an incredible experience. Words do not convey the depth of respect and admiration I and I‘m sure all of my fellow Americans have for the incredible work they do, literally exploring other worlds! What a rush it must be, to be the eyes and ears of our nation as you explore outer space. I hope in some small way this photo we created together helps others see the real beauty of your creativity, character and passion.