Why the Curiosity over Mars…

posted August 5, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

Welcome back to the surface of the Red Planet Earthlings! This is a place like we have never seen before in any previous robotic mission. Expect to see some images that harken back to Ansel Adams shots of Yosemite. And expect some ground-breaking science which will take us closer to answering a fundamental question: are we alone?

Mars is my second favorite planet, and the folks at NASA/Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada, CA have helped us feel as if we have been there. And, against all odds, they have done it again. We all owe them thanks for the outstanding vicarious ride these past 30 years or so – and the curious turn it will now take with the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory.

Sometimes I think we take for granted that we are now awash in amazing high revolution, panoramic, microscopic, three dimensional images shot on the surface – or in orbit.

What we have found is a place that looks an awful lot like home (if you are Walter White) and I think that is part of the appeal. Looking at the Eagle crater, a human being can imagine being there – in hiking boots.

3-oppy-color-pan-pia05163

It is truly a transformative experience, and when you consider all the proof we now have that this place was once warm and wet, you cannot help but look at those images and wonder about our place in the universe and how close we are to learning if we have some company.

How great is it to be alive at this time when we just might learn the answer to that question? We are lucky to have people like the wizards at JPL who know how to get an answer.

Of course, we have been curious about this since cavemen looked at the night sky and said ”UG”  (or when they saw the spaceship land and the little green men build Stonehenge).

4-canaliWhile we’re on the subject of water and Mars, it is worth talking about the origins of our modern fascination with the Red Planet. It all begins with water; Giovanni Schiparelli  and the canali that he wrote about.

He meant natural channels, but in this case something was gained in the translation – and people assumed he was talking about canals – which implies some sort of Martian Corps of Engineers.

No one took the ball farther and ran harder with that than the blue-blooded astronomer Percival Lowell.

5-war-of-the-worlds

Lowell was convinced the canals were built by smart beings who were running out of water.

This of course begat HG Wells War of the Worlds…Orson Wells radio version of it…which begat Edgar Rice Burroughs…Marvin the Martian…Ray Bradbury…and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” among other things.

For a long time, there was nothing to stop the Martian train from rolling down the tracks. Until 1964, when JPL launched a series of spacecraft called Mariner.

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Scan line by scan line,  the Mariner faxes from Mars gave us a whole new view of Mars – and it was not a good place to find or build some condos.

So much for that fun, but before we could get too depressed we had some astronauts on the moon to entertain us.

7-vikingAnd then, before too long, Mars came into focus as it never had before…1976 – the Viking Landers arrived on the surface -  and the crowd went wild. There was Mars in vivid color! Do not adjust your set, it really is kinda sepia there, ladies and gentlemen.

Viking did not find smoking gun proof of life on Mars – but what are the chances of finding a gun there anyway?

But seriously, the data were kind of ambiguous and even today, scientists are not speaking with one voice on this – as they normally do.

Oh you say scientists disagree at times?

8-pathfinder

Fast forward twenty years (now that is what I call a gap! – let’s not do that again) and Pathfinder. Who could have predicted that one?

The internet as a mass medium was brand new, Google was just a glint in Sergei and Larry’s eyes…and yet the JPL Martians started posting pictures on the web almost as fast as they got into the hands of the science team. How cool was that? Millions of hits later, the first global internet event was born. Mars was ready for its close-ups.

9-blueberriesThe missions that have followed have either built on this connection, or built on the suspense because they didn’t make it. Each time we go back there, we learn something new and see something cool: some spheres that had to be formed by water, or we touch and taste ice.  Each time we go to the very edge of what is possible.

The Mars Exploration Rover team took the Pathfinder philosophy one step further: they allowed the public to see every image they saw. Remarkable. Nothing like that has ever happened in the history science as far as I know. (Of course, I am a history major).

No wonder Opportunity and Spirit  are so beloved, and so much a part of our pop culture. They are, literally and figuratively, rock stars. The mission ranks number one on the public awareness scale. In TV we call it a Q-rating. If I had Opportunity’s “Q”, I’d still be at CNN.

I think the thread that connects Schiaparelli and Lowell to Opportunity Spirit, Phoenix and Curiosity is the quest for life outside out planet.

10-marvin-the-martianThere are not many people left who are expecting to see Marvin the Martian or the ruins of an ancient civilization on Mars (even though some people are still fixated on that old face image captured by Viking and debunked by Mars Global Surveyor).

As they say in the newsroom: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
But my sense is people would be pretty excited if our intrepid Mars Explorers found a fossil.  Matter of fact we have empirical proof of that given the DEFCON 1 media cluster -event- surrounding the Alan Hills 84001 meteorite announcement.

It’s not exactly what the SETI team has in mind as they soldier on in their daunting effort to make contact – but maybe microbes on Mars are enough to lure people away from American Idol for a while.

I often wonder if the Maritans of La Canada are big gamblers, because what they do is such an all or nothing thing. In some cases they stake an entire career of hard work on a 7 minute plunge into an alien atmosphere millions of miles away.

This is as exciting as science can be. We weren’t there for the serendipitous moments when researchers stumbled onto Teflon, Velcro or Post It Notes and said, no doubt, “Eureka!” (before calling a patent lawyer).

But we were there when Curiosity made it to the surface and the all-in bet paid off. In the news business – we call this good TV. Suspense, reality and possible smoldering holes…everything but a vote to see who gets booted off the island.

But the story was not really not so much about a robot on Mars as it was the humans who risked so much to make it happen. Had they crashed the craft, they would have been out of work. But the bet paid off for them – and for he rest of us as well.

 

6 responses to Why the Curiosity over Mars…

  1. BWJones says:

    The transparency of the science on the Mars Exploration Rover was truly stunning. It was publicly funded science that anyone could have followed along with at every step of the way. Very exciting.

  2. Carmi says:

    This is how great societies advance. If we continue to invest in pushing back the boundaries – in any sector, of course, but in this case in space – we continue to lead those nations that choose to avoid such investments.

    I sincerely hope the lawmakers who see such investments as frivolous during times of economic restraint choose to instead take the long view and see these as long-term building blocks to societies that engage minds and build futures – as opposed to those that flip burgers, celebrate the status quo or otherwise constrain their citizens from achieving their true potential.

    We’d all be OK if more of us were like the folks at the JPL. Thank you, Miles, for continuing to keep that flame alive.

  3. John P. Lauri says:

    Miles this is another great example of your insightful storytelling ability putting this amazing accomplishment into perspective for all of us. Great job and I hope to speak to you soon! Thank you my friend!

  4. Deb says:

    When you re-watch the 7 minutes of terror video on YouTube and see the sequence of events that had to occur at split second intervals and then realize that every SINGLE one of them was accomplished flawlessly and that they did it: they landed the Mars Rover on the surface safely you begin to realize the amazingness of it all. I’m so glad that they did it. So proud of everyone at the NASA team. So proud that they showed it all live, unedited. Amazing feat. Let’s hope they learn some cool stuff in the next 2 years! Thanks Miles, and Xeni, for bringing science home as to why it’s so important.

  5. Dave-O says:

    Watching the live-stream of the successful landing was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen. Congrats to all involved, what an amazing accomplishment. I have the feeling the most people (including me) have no idea just how TRULY amazing it is.

    Thank you for covering these wonderful stories!

  6. Chris says:

    Miles – Does this mean we need to bring back Mission Madness 2013? :) Great job!

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