Bruce Murray recollection

Bruce Murray recollection by filmmaker Ben Shedd – Written 29/Aug/2013:

I first met Professor Bruce Murray in 1971 when I was looking for a film to direct as my USC School of Cinematic Arts Master Thesis and Bruce was visiting Churchill Films, the educational production company where I was working. I overheard a discussion about making a film about the Mariner 9 Mars mission and I said “I’ll do it. What is it exactly?” and then spent much of that next year with Bruce – who told me the Mariner 9 story and narrated the film – and working with his visual team at Cal Tech and JPL to animate the brand new orbiting satellite images of Mars into a 20 minute educational science film.

I recall two events while spending lots of time at Cal Tech and JPL: Playing Space Invaders on a Cal Tech computer with one of Bruce’s PhD students Michael Malin and getting images digitally enhanced through JPL to NASA where it took something like a month to get 7 computer enhanced images back using some of NASA’s most powerful computers working on the project. As the computer revolution changed everything starting about 10 years later, it just seemed ordinary to me to use computers for all kinds of interesting tasks.

While putting the film together, I wanted to show how Bruce came up with some of his geological discoveries. When I asked about his process, I still vividly remember his reply “You have studied and know a lot about your field and you look at the new data in-depth and think about it and think about it and then one day while you are staring out a window, an idea comes to you and then you go put it to the test to see if it holds up” and I realized his creative process in doing his science was almost identical to my creative process in making a film, something that has stuck with me through the decades.

With the then quite recent black and white photos taken by the orbiting Mariner 9 showing great swaths of another planet, we were able to work over several months to animate whole mosaics of Mars and make planetary exploration something for everyone to see. I didn’t realize at the time how important Bruce was to getting cameras put on those satellites, but the planet surface photos were at the core of making a movie about those science results.

The finished film was called MARS MINUS MYTH and became one of the main public documentaries about that mission. It was used extensively in schools. Not only did I get my USC Cinema Master’s Degree from that project, but the film won a number of international awards, including the ORBIT Award from the Australian and New Zealand Association of Science as Best Science Film in the World 1973 – and it started my career as a science documentary filmmaker and got me my next job working on the then brand new, and at the time still unnamed, public television science series NOVA. Bruce was the first scientist I worked with making a science film and I have recognized over the years what a great start Bruce gave me with his huge welcome into his world of research and intellectual interests.

A few years later I made a science film with Cal Tech alumnus Paul MacCready and his Gossamer Condor human-powered airplane while at the same time – 1977 – Bruce was leading JPL when the Voyager Spacecraft were launched after the Mars Viking landers. When the Voyager Spacecraft made their close approaches to Saturn and Jupiter, Bruce personally invited me to come to the JPL Fly-By day long events, to celebrate and see the first close encounters with those planets. One of the things I remember on those Fly-By days was seeing color digital planetary images downloaded from the Voyager spacecraft taken only hours before flashing up on the JPL screens and then being computationally enhanced within 5 minutes to better see the features, just a decade after the Mariner 9 photos.

I saw Bruce and Suzanne from time to time over the years, at a large Planetary Society event or an evening with Astronauts and it was always good to just pick up the conversation. I learned early on from working with Bruce that experts in their scientific fields are smart, straight forward, clear-minded people who know how to both do extraordinary scientific work and work enthusiastically to tell their stories to the larger public so interested in knowing more through scientific research – and sometimes these experts have as big a smile and laugh as Bruce always had.

The Planetary Society’s Bruce Murray Webpage Guest Blogs

Uploaded 08/Dec/2013