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Visions of Mars, now actually on Mars

Nearly 15 years ago, I was the software lead on a project called “Visions of Mars,” a digital time capsule of classic SF stories and visualizations about Mars that was sent to the red planet aboard the ambitious Mars-96 spacecraft, launched by Russia.

Produced by astronomical artist and visionary Jon Lomberg for the Planetary Society, the disc contained narration by Patrick Stewart, and audiovisual greetings from the late Carl Sagan, the late Arthur C. Clarke, and the late Judith Merril.

I worked closely with Jon Lomberg, visual designer Steve Johnson and eagle-eye editor Esther Gwynne to realize the original Visions of Mars, developing an enhanced version of the multimedia engine & authoring tool, Idaho, that I had originally designed for Time Warner. Some of the enhancements I developed for Visions of Mars, such as the iptScrae programming language, eventually found their way into my mid-90s Avatar chat system, The Palace.

Unfortunately, the Russian spacecraft never made it to Mars – there was a malfunction and it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. The original 200 MB mini CD contained in that spacecraft is likely a home for ocean critters now, if it survived the descent at all.

I’m very proud to say that my software, bugs and all, finally made it to Mars last Sunday. A copy of “Visions of Mars” is on the “Messages from Earth” DVD pictured here, mounted on the Phoenix lander. It shares space on the DVD with a quarter million names sent to NASA over the Internet.

Although the disc appears to be exposed to the elements, it is playing side down, and made of more durable silica, rather than polycarbonate. Jon Lomberg says that “Informed estimates of the lifetime seem to offer assured legibility for 500 years and possible legibility for several millennia.”

Let’s hope who ever eventually tries to play it has a copy of Windows 3.1 :)

4 Responses to “Visions of Mars, now actually on Mars”

  1. doranchak Says:

    Congratulations! What an incredible achievement that few of us can ever hope to accomplish.

    Did you include any puzzles on the DVD to stump the Martians?

    The “Oracle of Batboy” would have been a better representation of our species, IMO. :)

  2. jbum Says:

    No, although playing the software itself could prove to be quite a puzzle for the eventual finders. I imagine they will have to use use or construct a software emulator.

  3. amitjoshi Says:

    congratulations Jim, this is awesome !!

    is the original palace system based on flash ?

  4. jbum Says:

    Hey Amit, no, I didn’t start doing a lot of Flash until 2003. Back during the mid-90s, most of my software was written in C, with a little assembly language here and there for speed. At this point, I only used C++ if execution speed wasn’t an issue.

    The Palace included an interpreter for a scripting language, loosely based on Forth, called iptScrae. The iptScrae interpreter was written in C.