NBC's Tom Costello made a gaffe of planetary proportions on Saturday's Nightly News as he reported on the launch of NASA's latest Martian rover. The correspondent identified the rocket, which blasted the unmanned Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) probe into space for its eight month-plus journey to the fourth planet, as a "Saturn V." This is actually the name of the rocket that took Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The last Saturn V flew in 1973.
The expendable rocket that actually blasted off on Saturday morning, taking MSL and its Curiosity rover beyond the Earth's atmosphere, is the Atlas V. It is the newest member of a rocket family that has been in service since the 1950s. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 after a modified first-generation Atlas launched his Mercury capsule into space.
Later in his report (video available here), Costello stated that "just traveling the 154 million miles to the Red Planet will take more than eight months." According to NASA's press kit for the Mars mission, this will be the distance between Earth and Mars when MSL reaches its destination in August 2012. However, the probe's total travel distance will actually be 354 million miles, more than twice the figure the NBC correspondent cited.
I actually had saw the Atlas V booster that launched MSL into space back in August 2011, when NASA invited me to attend the launch of the Juno probe, which will orbit the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter (which also launched on top of an Atlas V rocket). As part of their NASA Tweetup outreach program with the public, the space agency gave an extensive tour of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, including the facility which prepares the rocket for launch. The booster sat on its side inside a hangar until it was taken to a vertical integration facility near the launch pad, where a Centaur upper stage was stacked on top of it, along with the probe. (see photo above)
The full transcript of Tom Costello's report from Saturday's NBC Nightly News:
LESTER HOLT: The folks at NASA are calling it the monster truck of Mars, and tonight, the world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer is on its way to the Red Planet. For NASA, this new mission in search of life carries high hopes and high risks.
NBC's Tom Costello has our report.
GEORGE DILLER, NASA: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1-
TOM COSTELLO (voice-over): With a Saturn V [sic] liftoff at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA has launched its most sophisticated and ambitious mission to Mars yet. Just traveling the 154 million miles to the Red Planet will take more than eight months. Then, next August, a high-risk landing, as a supersonic parachute slows the science lab's descent to Mars. Sixty feet above the planet, a sky crane will gently lower the rover, named Curiosity, onto the Martian surface, leaving Curiosity on its own to begin looking for signs of life, past or present.
PAMELA CONRAD, ASTROBIOLOGIST: Do we anticipate that we'll learn a whole lot about Mars? Absolutely. Do we know what specifically that will be? No clue.
COSTELLO: Curiosity is a six-wheeled rover, standing more than six feet tall, able to drive long distances under a hot Martian sun, analyzing rock and soil samples and then, transmitting those findings back to Earth.
COSTELLO (on-camera): NASA has carefully selected the landing zone on Mars in the Gale Crater, where a huge mountain rises right out of the crater floor. Scientists believe they see layers of sedimentary deposit here that they hope will help them understand more about Mars history, but also, what happened to the lakes and rivers.
BRIAN HYNEK, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO: This is Gale Crater-
COSTELLO (voice-over): Brian Hynek is a planetary science professor and Mars expert at the University of Colorado. The evidence he says now seems clear that Mars once had a very warm and wet environment.
HYNEK: Microbial life could have persisted for hundreds of millions of years on ancient Mars- and perhaps, even today.
COSTELLO: And that possibility poses a big problem. NASA has gone to great lengths to ensure Curiosity doesn't carry any Earth germs that could contaminate life on Mars. High resolution cameras have already detected what appear to be large ice sheets buried under the Martian surface. Curiosity's mission- to determine whether life is or ever was buried there, too. Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.
[H/t: @LaunchPhoto on Twitter.]