It was called the “Grand Finale.” After exploring Saturn for 13 years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ran out of fuel and was intentionally crashed, amid live coverage.
But no fewer than three La Cañada Flintridge residents who worked on the project were among Jet Propulsion Laboratory workers who experienced yet another big finish — sharing in an Emmy Award for original interactive program for coverage of Cassini’s spectacular dive, in which the spacecraft sent data back to Earth even in its final seconds, more than a year ago.
Cassini project manager Earl Maize, navigation team chief Duane Roth and producer, host and writer Gay Yee Hill were members of a team honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the recent Creative Arts Emmys, which celebrate technical and artistic success in such categories as visual effects, animation, cinematography and more. Leaders of the mission as well as workers in JPL’s media relations and public engagement offices attended the event in Los Angeles.
Maize, Roth and Hill recently posed together while holding the Emmy in front of a model of the famous Cassini at JPL. Maize searched on his phone for the Emmy’s category, because it’s currently not printed on the statuette.
“You can go into Petco and have this written on your dog’s tag,” Maize, who moved to LCF in 1997, said to laughter from his colleagues. “It’s no different. So I don’t know why it’s taking so long.”
But he’s used to projects that take a while to complete. Cassini’s official journey began after it was launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and reached Saturn in 2004.
Audiences were able to see live coverage on cable television and online of
Cassini’s drop into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. “They kind of made us media stars for the last six months of the mission,” said Maize, who worked on the Cassini project early but left for eight years and returned in 2013, in a separate interview.
Hill, who moved to LCF sometime between 1999 and 2000, said she considered the coverage of the end of the mission to be similar to that of a live sporting event such as the Olympics.
“Our live event is the end of the mission when Cassini would be programmed to fly itself into Saturn,” said Hill, who now has a creative arts national Emmy award to go along with two local Emmy awards for news reporting.
But the mission’s ending was just part of the reason JPL earned the Emmy, she said. There was an interactive, online component unlike anything that can be watched on television, including a 360-degree camera inside the mission’s control room. Viewers could also place themselves in the room with engineers, a flight director, the mission manager and other NASA officials.
Hill said viewers were tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking and YouTubing questions while officials on social media answered their questions live during the finale.
“A virtual reality was going on with the 360, and we had the TV program you could see on NASA TV, which was my part,” she said.
She said that not only did she work closely with Maize to better understand Cassini, she even ran into him at the LCF Ralphs in February, when she was hunting for treats for her book club. The book being discussed was “Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars.”
“I was at the grocery store looking for rocket popsicles,” Hill said with a laugh. “So Earl, I ran into him, and he was looking for rocket popsicles.”
Being part of an Emmy-winning team isn’t all glamour. During the workday, Maize said, he had to watch out for production cables and other items used to broadcast the mission.
“It can be a little intrusive, but most of the engineers were very good sports about it,” Maize said. “There’s a chance for your parents to see you on national television or Twitter or Instagram. That’s something they can take pride in.”
Coverage of missions such as Cassini and Mars-related endeavors energizes everyone, from engineers participating in the mission to children watching online. The open interactions have been positive, Maize said.
Maize admitted he worries about the public getting turned off by a massive amount of media coverage or if something goes wrong.
“You don’t want to oversell,” Maize said.
When asked about the cost of the taxpayer-funded Cassini mission, Maize said a figure cited for the Cassini-Huygens project, $3.98 billion, doesn’t include European financial contributions post-launch. According to a NASA statement, Cassini carried the European Huygens probe on part of its journey to study Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
Roth said winning an Emmy was not something that had ever occurred to him before, but he wanted to emphasize that JPL’s outreach department had a large hand in that achievement.
“They did the work” of building interest in Cassini, said Roth, who did not attend the Emmy ceremony. He admitted to posing for photos with the award after the Emmys and acknowledged some of his work was featured during coverage of the mission.
“It was exciting to get it,” said Roth, who began working on the Cassini mission in 1996 as an orbit determination analyst. “It’s not something that happens every day, so when you get the opportunity you take advantage of it and you get pictures taken.”