bbc.co.uk
Home
TV
Radio
Talk
Where I Live
A-Z Index
RELATED SITES
News
Sending postcards from Mars
Steve Adrain, Christine McGourty and Rachael Buchanan at mission control
Steve Adrain, Christine McGourty and Rachael Buchanan at mission control
BBC science producer Rachael Buchanan describes her New Year visit to Los Angeles to see if Nasa's Spirit probe would fare better at landing on Mars than Britain's Beagle 2.

"The thing about a Martian day is that it's 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than an Earth day. So we are all on Mars time now, and every day we shift by around 40 minutes."

I was standing in the middle of the courtyard at Nasa's Los Angeles base, talking to the head scientist for their current Mars probe, which was due to plummet to the surface of the red planet in about 10 hours time.

As he showed me his antique fob watch that had been altered to run slower, on Martian time, I marvelled at the way Mars always seems to attract the more colourful, exuberant wing of the science community.

Steve Squyres was no exception: a tall, rangy figure in his 40s, no suits or ties or techno jargon for him. It's always ripped jeans and cowboy boots, wild arm movements, ebullient delivery and homey phrases.

Scientist Steve Squyres prepares for his next interview
Scientist Steve Squyres prepares for his next interview
"Frame me loose," he warned. "I move around a lot in interviews."

Our location didn't fit the stereotype either. Set in the rolling foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, in a sleepy suburb of LA, Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory doesn't look like the epicentre of robotic space exploration.

Deer roam the leafy campus, and the functional concrete architecture is more reminiscent of a 1970s university.

But for the BBC's science team it was Nirvana. What better way to spend New Year than at mission control, witnessing America land on Mars?

Weather woes

Foolishly, we believed that California was the sunshine state and packed sunglasses instead of waterproofs. How wrong we were.

Our two days of pre-filming (all indoors) were lovely crisp, sunny days. But on the first day of broadcasting, we were, of course, outdoors, stuck all day on the steps of building 180, the only place we could get a signal.

Steve Adrain tests the equipment
Broadcasting in the dark and in the rain proved a challenge
The weather turned. Solid rain, rain and more rain, all day, non-stop. On the plus side, I now know the water tolerance of an M4, a Coobe and a producer.

M4s (satellite phones) can take a torrential downpour for about two hours before refusing to work. A Coobe (a vital piece of audio equipment) can last a little longer, about three, with the help of a Nasa umbrella. Producers can work all day even when thoroughly soaked.

Our modest outfit was in stark contrast to the CNN operation. In addition to their five-man crew there was an engineering magician called Brad - a man whose sole job was to sit in the feed room and press a button now and again to switch between different Nasa feeds.

Brad became our saviour, by changing tapes on our edit pack when we were off doing lives.

It was also during these moments that we realised the true value of Steve Adrain's membership of that Masonic organisation The Secret Brethren of Cameramen .

A word in someone's ear found us everything we needed, whether it was a borrowed router, an essential video feed or assorted technical equipment.

Unfolding events

And, crucially with Steve around, a supply of chocolate after a 16-hour day was never far away either. I found bribes from the Cadbury bag were also essential for getting correspondent Christine McGourty to file her online piece before heading off to get some sleep.

My worst moment was going to bed at 0430 after a 22-hour day, knowing we had to get up and do it all over again in just three hours time.


My favourite moment - in the blur of 24-hour news broadcasting - was a small 10-minute window in which, for once, I got to sit down in the packed press room and experience the events unfolding.

To huge excitement, the first images came back from Mars just a few hours after a successful touchdown. I'll never forget seeing those first Martian postcards from Spirit.

They were only strange black and white images of a flattened mast, a giant bulbous wheel, the rocks of the planet's surface. But they came, flawlessly, from more than 100 million miles away.

We couldn't help asking ourselves, why, if Nasa could do this, it was sometimes so difficult to get a decent signal just to London!

As for our New Year celebrations in LA - they were muted. The bouncer at the nearest bar insisted that I looked 20 and demanded ID that I didn't have, so it was back to the hotel for a quiet margarita.

Well, we were only just up the road from Mexico after all.


RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

 

^^ back to top
About BBC News
Feedback | Help | BBC frontpage>>