Mars rover mission is Web's hottest mini-movie

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Television and the space program grew up together, and NASA has always been very savvy about using TV to promote its space adventures. Now the space agency has gone Hollywood with a new film, which features NASA scientist Adam Steltzner (seen here) on the Internet that is out of this world.
CBS News

(CBS News) PASADENA, Calif. - Television and the space program grew up together, and NASA has always been very savvy about using TV to promote its space adventures. Now the space agency has gone Hollywood with a new film on the Internet that is out of this world.

About 350 NASA scientists at the JPL labs in Pasadena had been working in obscurity for nine years. They were designing, building and programming the third -- the biggest and by far most complex -- Mars rover, the one-ton Curiosity. Launched last November, it's now hurtling toward Mars on a two-year, $2.5-billion mission to search for signs if there was -- or is -- life on the red planet.

"This mission is the coolest thing I think we've ever done," said John Beck, who is a part of the team as a video producer. With Curiosity a week-and-a-half from landing, Beck says these scientists are ready for their close-ups.

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"When people look at it, it looks crazy," said Adam Steltzner,a NASA scientist, in the film. "Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy."

Beck's mini-movie is the hottest thing ever on NASA's Web site. The scientists are the stars.

"These are the Hans Solos, these are the space jockeys behind the rover mission," said Beck."They're real people with real fears, real vulnerabilities. That's what the audience wants to see and engage with."

NASA's production values have come a long way since Voyager 2 in the '70s. This now-viral Curiosity video looks like something out of Hollywood has out-of-this-world images, like something made in Hollywood. It's a thrill ride, especially the high-stakes landing. For seven minutes, JPL scientists will be biting their nails, waiting for radio transmissions to cross millions of miles signaling success or failure.

"When we first get word that we've touched the atmosphere," said Steltzner in the film, "the vehicle has been alive or dead on the surface for at least seven minutes."

It seems like science fiction. A hover craft, called a sky crane, steadied by rockets, designed just for this, will gently lower the car-size rover to the Martian surface, then fly out of the way.

"If one thing doesn't work just right, it's game over," said Tom Rivellini, a NASA scientist, in the film.

Beck told CBS News: "I know when we get that signal, a lot of people are going to be crying. I'm going to be crying."

If all goes according to plan, Curiosity will be landing on a planet near us on August 6.