Technology, Science, Space & The Environment |

My Speech to the Mars Rover Team at JPL


Great to be here – behind all this facial hair is a former CNN space correspondent… but as you may have read – I have just been accepted into the anchor protection program – and I was told by my government handlers to change my appearance. Please don’t tell them that I am here…

Actually – I grew this despite the misgivings of my lovely bride Sandy – because for the first time in 26 years, I actually own my face…I am taking back the territory…thought about planting a flag…but that seemed like it would be painful…

It is always great to be here at my favorite space portal…the gateway to the universe…one of the smartest – and most fun – places on the planet – Disneyland for Nerds…

Mars is my second favorite planet – and many of you in this room helped make me feel as if I have been there…and how cool is that? Thanks for the outstanding vicarious ride these past 30 years or so.

Sometimes I think we can 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 from New Mexico – and I think that is part of the appeal. Looking at the Eagle crater – a human being can imagine being there – in hiking boots.

It is truly a transformative experience – and when you consider all the proof we now have that this place was once warm and wet – we 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 you 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.

I hear there may be another Stonehenge underwater in Lake Michigan. Alien SCUBA divers? Who knew?

While 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. (You don’t hear about many boys being named Percival these days…do you?).

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…

And for a long time – there was nothing to stop the Martian train from rolling down the tracks… until 1964 – when you guys – or your scientific ancestors – launched a series of spacecraft called Mariner.

Scan line by scan line- the 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…

And 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 – 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 then it does seem unlikely there would be any guns at all on Mars.

But seriously – the data was kind of ambiguous – and even today – as I understand it – scientists are not speaking with one voice on this – as they normally do…

Oh you mean you guys disagree at times?

Fast forward twenty years (now that is what I call a gap! – don’t do that again) – and Pathfinder: who could have predicted that one?

The internets as a mass medium were new – and the Google was just a glint in Sergei and Larry’s eyes…and there was Pathfinder on Mars – and JPL putting pictures on the web almost as fast as they got into the hands of the science team. How cool was that? Millions of hits – and the first global internet event was born. Mars was ready for is close-ups…

The missions that have followed have either built on this connection – or built on the suspense because they didn’t make it. Each time you take us 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 – and each time you take us to the very edge of what is possible. And we are there with you.

The Mars Rover team took the Pathfinder philosophy one step further – you allow the public to see every image you see. 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 and Phoenix is the quest for life outside out planet. You – and those of us in the media (I guess I am now technically a recovering journalist) have done a good job setting the bar on what might or might not be found on Mars.

There 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 that captured by Viking and debunked by mars Global Surveyor).

I guess I can now safely share with you an expression we use 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 you 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 SETI has in mind as they soldier on in their daunting effort to make contact – but microbes on Mars are enough to lure people away from American Idol for a while…
I guess the moral of this – is because we are among the living – we are generally interested in other living things…and this brings me to the other great narrative that plays out here: it is the story of all of you.

I often wonder if you all are big gamblers – because what you do is such an all or nothing thing – in some cases risking nearly an entire career of hard work – on a 6 minute plunge into an alien atmosphere.

Let’s face it  – this is as exciting as science can be…we weren’t there for the serendipitous moments when researchers stumbled onto Teflon…or Velcro…or Post It Notes – and said, no doubt, Eureka! – before calling a patent lawyer…

But we are there when you have those moments of unbridled joy – when the all-in bet pays off – or not. In the business – we call this good TV. Suspense, reality – possible smoldering holes…everything but a vote to see who gets booted off the island.

Steve Squyres and I did a special when the Phoenix landed – and I gave all due praise to the gods of orbital mechanics – as the Earth Received Time of the landing was near the end of an hour. And so I sold CNN on the notion of an hour on Mars – with some recorded pieces – a look at some of the most interesting images from the various missions over the past 30 years – and of course frequent cuts to the control room live – as the team endured the hellish final minutes of the long trip to Mars.

It really was a nail biter – and even better – as Phoenix fell to Mars we had data  the whole way. And then the eruption…We could not have story-boarded an hour any better than that. The ratings were huge – the audience was global.

But the story was not really not so much about a robot on Mars as it was the humans who made it happen.

So the human adventure of doing all of this – is a great connection between those of you here – and those of us who only get a day pass to Disneyland for Nerds. Let’s be honest – this is not the strong suit for most scientists. But for whatever reason, you have been blessed with some great communicators – over the years – from Sagan to Squyres.

So I bet your thinking, Miles, if all this is so, why there isn’t more coverage in the Mainstream Media of our exploits? In the good old days, it was different: the coverage was longer, better and deeper (as opposed to faster better cheaper??) The reporters were enthused – almost cheerleaders – and the whole world was watching! (oh and the women were more beautiful – the kids smarter – and the beer tasted better too).

So what has happened to the media? Why do we seem more interested in Britney Spears than Tony Spear?

How the hell should I know? I just got canned!

No seriously, a lot of this has to do with the space agency  which you are affiliated with – NASA ascribes to the “no Buck Rodgers no bucks” philosophy – and there is probably some truth in that theory. But sending humans into the vacuum creates a vacuum for the likes of you.

It is simply hard to compete with those operations in Houston and Florida – too much money – and too many fights over how the money has – and will – be spent.

Shuttle launch coverage has degenerated into little more than a deathwatch for the astronauts – and the space savvy press corps seems poised to pounce on the next gaffe.

The fact that CNN wiped out its entire – highly decorated science and technology unit – including yours truly – should tell you a lot about where things stand right now in the mainstream media.

We are talking about plate tectonics here – the world is shifting beneath the media’s feet. Once upon a time, we had healthy newspapers in this country – soon we will have nothing to line the bird cage or wrap the fish.

So what’s the advice? Plastics. Oh sorry, I guess I need to get with the program – and update that. No it is the internets – all of them.

Seriously, what you, in a sense, started in 1997 with the Pathfinder web-aganza – has grown at a Moore’s Law clip. Today – bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, random folks ranting with a DV camera and a Mac can – and do – compete with a globally deployed standing army of journalists with all their satellite trucks, camera crews, producers and reporters.

There are interested people out there – the mainstream media may no longer be the best way to reach them.  It just looks a lot different than those news conferences in the 60s and seventies.

So whatever you do, don’t stop – don’t stop exploring of course…but also don’t stop thinking of new ways to speak directly to your audience. This is the future – my teenage kids insist on a two-way transaction on most everything they do on line.

If they can’t be part of your adventure – they are outta there.

Fortunately you get this – you have a long history of letting the public in – and letting them look over your shoulders as you do your work. Just keep exploring new ways to engage them – never stop thinking of what is just over the horizon – on whatever planet you are on.


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