Monday, May 26, 2008

Seven Minutes of Terror

The "Seven Minutes of Terror" that were part of a niche audience media event yesterday describe the time that it took for the Phoenix lander to travel from entry into the Martian atmosphere to touchdown on the planet's surface for its mission to study the presence of water there.

Since I write about the digital rhetoric of JPL in the book, which in past decades has included the skillful use of computer animation and successful early webcasting initiatives for persuasive purposes, I watched the climactic events in the mission control room carefully. For purposes of comparison, I viewed the "live" happenings simultaneously on the Discovery channel on television and on NASA TV on the web. Although it was less chatty, I thought the web-based government in-house coverage was much better than the network product, since you could actually see the screens of the team leaders and get a sense of their engagement with their labor practices. In addition to favoring anything other than a POV shot, the broadcast version tried to inject false drama by cutting away to talk about past failures and by hyping the critical "seven minutes" that took place before the successful conclusion. Unfortunately, unlike a live tour of the facility under normal circumstances, neither presentation did much to interpret the changing contents of the screens or explicate the distant data that was being represented in graphs and strings of numbers. (In contrast, see below for an image that I shot at JPL last year, where helpful attendants explained what all the colors we were seeing meant.)

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