Documentary Series: JPL and the Space Age
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is widely known for its trailblazing role in space exploration. As one JPL veteran put it, “You only get to explore the solar system for the first time once, and we did a lot of it.” And now, many of these adventures can be relived again in this series of documentaries: JPL and the Space Age that uses rare archival footage and interviews with many of JPL’s pioneering engineers and scientists in the retelling of many of humanity’s first steps out into the cosmos.
Each episode of JPL and the Space Age was written, produced and directed by JPL Fellow and national Emmy Award-winning documentarian Blaine Baggett.
Episode 1: The American Rocketeer
The American Rocketeer is the story of the origins of the world’s premiere center for the exploration of the solar system and beyond: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is also the story of one man’s reach for the stars. The central figure throughout this 90-minute documentary is Frank Malina, whose fundamental role in the evolution of American rocketry is largely unknown and remains uncelebrated.
As an idealistic Caltech graduate student during the midst of the Great Depression, Malina agreed to lead a motley crew of amateur rocket enthusiasts and fellow Caltech students attempting to launch rockets in hopes of one day reaching space. That led to building rockets for the U.S. Army during World War II. Malina helped to win a world war, only to later see his country turn against him, and declare him an international fugitive. Through it all, he kept meticulous records, hoping to insure his pioneering role in American rocketry.
Episode 2: Explorer 1
Many of the strategies surrounding the Cold War revolved around two things: nuclear weapons and rockets. And in the United States, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, under the supervision of Caltech, was charged with building America’s first tactical nuclear rockets: the Corporal and Sergeant missiles.
At this same time the United States and the Soviet Union were nearing the ability to launch a satellite into Earth orbit. JPL, working in collaboration with Wernher von Braun’s rocket efforts for the U.S. Army, believed they were fully capable of the feat, if only given the chance. That opportunity vanished in October 1957 when the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. The Space Age was underway. The first U.S. response exploded on the launch pad. Only after that embarrassment were JPL and von Braun’s group given the green light. The success of Explorer 1, a satellite built by JPL, provided the world with the first space science discovery.
Explorer 1 traces the story of the role JPL played before the creation of NASA and how the lab was given a vital role as part of this new organization: to explore the cosmos.
Episode 3: Destination Moon
After the establishment of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s first major assignment was to explore the moon, taking close up images before crash landing as part of a series of missions called Ranger. JPL, however, had grander plans.
The laboratory, having built and helped launch the first U.S. satellite into space, wanted to explore not only the moon, but nearby planets. But as this hour-long episode documents, JPL would be humbled by a string of failures that threatened the lab’s very future. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” one veteran JPL engineer confides in the program, “and there was no one around to tell us.”
Ironically, a successful (although barely so) flyby of Venus by Mariner 2 would give the United States its first “First in Space.”
And after finally succeeding with its Ranger program, JPL would go on to manage the highly successful Surveyor missions that soft landed on the moon, serving as pathfinders for the Apollo astronauts. Destination Moon relives JPL’s struggles and triumphs at the moon and Venus.
Episode 4: The Changing Face of Mars
Other than Earth, no planet in the solar system has been so thoroughly or long examined as Mars. For more than two decades now NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has continuously explored the Red Planet with an array of orbiters, landers, and rovers.
What laid the groundwork for this unparalleled record of exploration? This 90 minute documentary describes the challenges of JPL’s first attempts to send spacecraft to the Red Planet.
For much of human history Mars was no more than a tiny reddish dot in the sky. But in 1965 the first spacecraft ever to visit Mars, JPL’s Mariner 4, began to change our understanding of the planet with its grainy black and white images of Mars. The data from Mariner 4 and for those that followed were full of confusing data for the scientists to understand.
The Changing Face of Mars, reveals through archival footage and interviews with key scientists and engineers, JPL's first roles in exploring the Red Planet, from Mariner 4, through the 1976 arrival of the Viking orbiters and landers.
Episode 5: The Stuff of Dreams
In 1977 the greatest adventure in space exploration began with the launch of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft – two robotic explorers designed and built to be able to manage – and explore – by themselves, in the deep reaches of our solar system.
Yet both missions went seriously wrong only moments after taking flight. Both spacecraft recovered and went on to make astounding and unexpected discoveries. Voyager 1 has the distinction of being the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space – the space between the stars.
The Voyagers were the creations of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where a brash young scientist had just been put in charge. His ambition was to take the next steps in exploring the solar system. Instead, he found himself struggling for JPL’s very survival in the midst of financial cutbacks at the very same time of the Voyagers' triumphs of discoveries at Jupiter and Saturn.
Most of all, The Stuff of Dreams, is a tale of perseverance by people and machines struggling against forces put in their way.
Episode 6: The Footsteps of Voyager
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would be among the first to demonstrate that NASA’s new space shuttle could be used to conduct science experiments about our own planet from the vantage of space. But for missions destined for targets beyond Earth orbit the shuttle posed new engineering challenges.
One of them was Galileo, JPL’s flagship mission to Jupiter, whose route towards the launch pad would be full of unexpected twists and turns.
At the same time the legendary Voyager 2 was in the midst of its triumphant Grand Tour through the outer planets. Drawing on rare film footage and the memories of the engineers and scientists those who were there, this 60 minute documentary brings alive again the dramatic experiences of these first ever encounters at Uranus and Neptune.
As scientist Carl Sagan declares in the film, those who designed, built and operated Voyager are "heroes of human accomplishment. Their deeds will be remembered in the history books.”
Episode 7: To the Rescue
Hubble in 1990 meant trouble. The highly touted space telescope was designed to escape Earth’s blurry atmosphere to capture unparallel visual images of the universe. But its creators were shocked to discover that it was cruelly nearsighted from a minuscule flaw.
Enter NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and engineers who offered up an ingenious solution to Hubble’s visual woes. But would it work?
Hubble was not the only space misadventure getting JPL’s attention during the 1990s. The Magellan spacecraft, nicknamed “Salvage 1” for its reliance on spare parts, barely survived its arrival at Venus. Galileo, destined for Jupiter and at the time the world’s most sophisticated spacecraft, barely skirted mission failure when its main communications antenna refused to unfurl.
And Mars Observer, the first mission to the Red Planet in nearly two decades, would mysteriously disappear just before going into orbit. To the Rescue explores all of these iconic examples of the tireless effort and indomitable ingenuity of JPL engineers as they attempt to rescue the machines they had lofted into the heavens.
Episode 8: The Pathfinders
It started with JPL agreeing to land something on Mars — cheaply — and do it in a radically different way. This is how the era NASA called “Faster, Better, Cheaper” began. The documentary film “The Pathfinders” tells the story of a small group of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who did not heed warnings that the audacious challenge of landing on Mars with airbags would likely not be a career-enhancing move.
With a parachute that could not be tested in a way to match the Martian atmosphere, to the late addition of an unwanted rover that would not have looked out of place in a toy store, the Mars Pathfinder mission was a doubter’s dream, taken on by a mostly young group of engineers and scientists, who were guided by a grizzled manager known for his maverick ways. The Pathfinders retraces the journey of this daring mission to Mars that captured the hearts and minds of people around the world with its dramatic landing and its tiny rover — the first wheels ever to roll on Mars.
View episode ›
Episode 9: The Breaking Point
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s success in landing the low-cost Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 was viewed as proof that spacecraft could be built more often and for far less money — a radical cultural change NASA termed “Faster, Better, Cheaper.”
The “Faster, Better, Cheaper” era also coincided with the discovery of a Mars rock that hinted at the possibility of microbial life elsewhere in the solar system. NASA’s reaction was to envision a steady stream of missions to Mars — all done at cut-rate costs. In fact, the next challenge taken on by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was to fly two missions to Mars for the price of the single Pathfinder mission. Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander both made it to the launch pad, on time and on budget, but were lost upon arrival at Mars, resulting in one of the most difficult periods in the history of JPL. The Breaking Point tells the story of the demise of these two missions and the abrupt end of NASA’s Faster, Better, Cheaper.
Episode 10: Saving Galileo
If any spacecraft could be said to have had nine lives, it was Galileo. At the time of its launch, this mission to Jupiter was the most sophisticated science spacecraft ever built. But the expectation of great science rewards almost was ruined when the spacecraft’s main antenna refused to unfurl. Saving Galileo is the story of how NASA’s Galileo mission — designed, built and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — was kept alive despite a multitude of technical challenges, including a years-long launch delay after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and then the devastating failure of its main antenna following the spacecraft’s launch. It is also the story of a tight-knit team of scientists and engineers who were forged by adversity into what many came to call a family.
Saving Galileo tells how, despite many challenges and limitations, Galileo proved a resounding success.
Episode 11: Mission to Mars
After the devastating loss of two back to back missions to Mars in 1999, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found itself at a crossroads. Would the lab pull back, becoming more cautious and conservative with the new missions it was willing to take on? Or would JPL, as one engineer put it, “get back in the saddle” and continue its tradition of pursuing challenging and innovative missions?
That question was answered when JPL proposed designing and building from scratch an entirely new type Martian rover on an extremely tight schedule, and launching not one, but two of them to the Red Planet. The mission’s proposer thought he could rely upon the proven Entry, Descent and Landing system used by Mars Pathfinder, employing parachutes and airbags. But as the rover design became larger and heavier, even the scheme of “building to print” that reliable system had to be abandoned as tests of parachutes and airbags dramatically failed in test after test. Mission to Mars is the story of the engineers and scientists who overcame multiple adversities to design, build, test and launch the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, two of NASA’s most storied missions.
Episode 12: Landing on Mars
In the summer of 2003 two rovers began their journeys to Mars at a time when the Red Planet and Mars were the nearest they had been to each other in 60,000 years. The rovers had been built at breakneck speed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But now there were new pressures. There were other nations flying missions to Mars. What if they succeeded and JPL didn’t? And the greatest pressure was knowing of NASA’s recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven. NASA was in great need of a success. After picture-perfect landings, the two intrepid rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, went on to rove Mars for years, becoming major icons in NASA lore.
Landing on Mars is the story of how two rovers survived a massive solar flare during cruise, the now well known “Six Minutes of Terror” (the six minutes from the time a spacecraft traveling at 12,000 mph hits the top of the Martian atmosphere until it reaches surface), and what came close to being a mission ending software error for the first rover once it was on the ground.
Episode 13: Triumph at Saturn (Part I)
In 1997 an ambitious international mission, led by NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory, launches to Saturn. The goal is to place a spacecraft around the planet and land the European Space Agency’s on a moon in the outer solar system, something never before attempted. But this is a mission that had to fight its way to the launch pad. A tight budget, threats of cancellation, and friction between what scientists want and engineers can do are just some of the obstacles that have to be worked out by an international team of scientists and engineers from 27 nations.
Time and again the project is forced to compromise, including even the flight path to Saturn. It requires first flying in towards the Sun to Venus. Twice. Finally, after a journey of seven long years, the fate of the mission depends on what happens in just three hours. Will Cassini’s rarely used main engine light up and slow down the spacecraft enough to be captured by Saturn’s gravity? Or will the spacecraft be destroyed as it flies through a gap in Saturn’s rings? Find out in Part One of Triumph at Saturn.
Episode 14: Triumph at Saturn (Part II)
With the Cassini spacecraft, built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, safely in orbit around Saturn, science takes center stage, beginning with the dramatic descent of the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to the surface of Saturn’s shrouded moon Titan.
For some scientists, Titan has been a higher priority for exploration than even Saturn itself. That’s because Titan may resemble what Earth was like billions of years ago. Huygens and Cassini will find there lakes and seas of liquid methane and signs of volcanos gushing out icy water from an ocean hidden beneath Titan’s icy shell. And whenever water is mentioned, it’s not long before the question is raised: “Is this a place that could possibly support life?” The same question will be asked about Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where geysers were found to be spewing water ice particles out into space. These are but two of the unexpected discoveries made by this international mission that won over the hearts of millions world-wide while fundamentally altering the way we view our solar system.
Episode 15: Sky High
Think "NASA," and what comes to mind? Astronauts? Mars rovers? Voyager and the Golden Record? How about Earth?
In fact, NASA has been studying and monitoring the health of our home planet for decades, using balloons, aircraft, satellites, and even the International Space Station in the effort.
Sky High traces the efforts of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to measure greenhouse gases, from the pathfinding science instrument AIRS, through to today’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 aboard the space station.