Reporting on space science missions poses unusual challenges, especially when the mission is on Mars. And when the mission is ongoing for years, such as with the robotic rover named Curiosity, keeping interested readers informed of its scientific findings requires some creativity.
Science News contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze proposed putting the rover’s science in perspective by writing mini-vignettes to summarize the major findings and milestones in the rover’s two and a half years on Mars. We wondered, how will we pull this off in a science magazine that takes a pretty conservative approach to its topics and usually designs its features in print before even considering the web treatment? The answer became clear in an instant when Alexandra turned in her first draft written from the perspective of the rover: We would design this feature for the web first, in a way that went above and beyond anything we had ever done.
At the time, we didn’t even have a front-end developer on staff, and the rest of our editorial team, while ambitious and talented in many ways, does not code. But we didn’t let that slow us down. We studied the web treatments and stories we found compelling, and made wish lists of what we hoped to do. We gathered lists of past ONA award winners and other immersive treatments. We found examples of the experience we wanted the user to have. Very quickly, we had everyone excited to try something new.
At the beginning of March, we hired a front-end developer and presented this idea to him in his first week. He was far less terrified by the idea than any of the rest of us, so we all set to work. The design team started sketching out comps, the editors and writer gathered all the possible extra images and videos that could go with each entry, and the developer looked for tools to make it work on a relatively quick turnaround.
We found the skeleton of the project in fullPage.js, which, like any custom project, is nearly unrecognizable in the final implementation. But it offered us a framework to guide the project’s execution. The designers honed the visuals, the reporter and editors wrote the zillions of captions, and our developer got an enormous dose of the challenges of our complex Drupal-based site and the variety of personalities of his new coworkers all in his first eight weeks on the job.
The final product is, effectively, the Curiosity rover’s blog, complete with videos, slideshows, snapshots, data, and links to our daily news coverage of some of the milestones. From analyzing martian soil scooped with its robotic arm, to maneuvering around rocks and rocky terrain, Curiosity’s journey is summarized imaginatively and accessibly, so that scientific reports about rocks and chemicals read as intriguingly as a travelog.