Spirit mission to Mars gives NASA major media boost

PASADENA, CA - The successful landing of the Mars Spirit rover last week gave NASA a much-needed PR boost that was nine months in the planning.

More than 400 journalists from around the globe were on hand at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the Mars mission is headquartered, to witness the landing of the golf-cart-sized craft.

For almost a year, JPL staffers held weekly meetings to plan tactics for handling the event, which drew the largest media interest to the facility since the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, according to Frank O'Donnell, manager of JPL's media relations office. Much of that preparation went into crisis plans in case the mission ran into trouble.

"We always hold our breath [for] an event like this," said O'Donnell. "We do a lot of contingency planning, what to do if things don't go right."

But, he added, "We were all very pleasantly surprised and elated at how smoothly the mission went. It's really been a fairly straightforward media operation."

The successful landing and subsequent pictures of Mars' surface resulted in positive press coverage for NASA, which has been struggling to overcome the shadow cast by last year's Columbia space shuttle crash. Many in the media played the mission as a redemption for the space agency, and a positive push for future space exploration.

JPL's media relations staff is now gearing up for another media onslaught this week as Spirit starts moving around the planet.

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