Monday, August 6, 2012

I ♥ Mars

I’m surprised people aren’t jumping up and down everywhere about the Mars landing.  I happened across a news item some time ago about how they had figured out a way to land a one-ton piece of equipment, this rover robot, within a few meters of where they wanted it in a crater on Mars.  A mind-boggling accomplishment.  

First they have to fling this thing the size of an automobile into space.  Then they have to wait eight months while it travels 350 million miles.  Then they have to sit through “seven minutes of terror” as it goes through some seventy-odd steps to set itself down just right.  If any one of these steps had gone wrong it could have turned itself into a multi-billion dollar piece of junk and slammed into the surface, leaving thousands of people at the Jet Propulsion Lab and elsewhere looking like fools.  What a risk they took.  What an adventure.

How could we not get caught up in this?  We take technical accomplishments for granted these days.  But this was at a whole new level.  Just one example:  Here’s a picture taken from a satellite which they fashioned to be able to be in just the right place at the time the rover robot was landing.  One second too soon or too late and they would have missed it.  Let’s hear it for mathematicians!

Fortunately, thanks to other technical advances, I was able to watch the landing live.  (Me and all the mission controllers and the 1,400 scientists, engineers and dignitaries at JPL and the 5,000 people at the  California Institute of Technology, and all the other people who had found their way to this event).  Facebook had a link.  Others, as well, allowed you to go to your computer and watch the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena bite their nails and sweat it out. Lots of sites are carrying on with related information.  Great drama.

And, because it worked exactly as planned – it was a total success – you got to feel the excitement.  Imagine working on a project for eight years, going from one disappointment to the next, one trial and error experience to the next, and then getting to the last moment and having to sit for those seven minutes when you couldn’t know whether the landing plan was working – having to wait seventeen minutes for the data to reach the earth at the speed of light after it had either worked or not worked.  Adam Steltzner, the head of the landing team, described the team as “rationally confident, emotionally terrified.”

Quite a show.  Lots of tears.  Lots of hugging.

And lots of politicking.  The head of NASA, and the president’s man, his science advisor, John Holdren, all had to get in on the inevitable rah-rah USA stuff.  We are Number One.  Don’t you wish you were us?  Where does this come from?  It’s not just the grunts in the stands shouting U-S-A, U-S-A at sports events.  It goes all the way to the top.  To the political folk, at least – I do get the impression the scientists working at JPL were more intent on doing their job than in politicking.

Fine.  It’s a great American moment.  We spent billions on this voyage of exploration, and this time I don’t feel like complaining that the money should have been spent on school lunch programs instead, as I do everytime the pentagon spends that sort of pocket change on killing foreigners with drones.  I’m hoping, as the scientists themselves said, this will inspire kids to study mathematics and engineering and chemistry and physics.  I’m hoping they will see themselves in the seats of these men and women at the JPL some day, with tears of excitement running down their cheeks too at some magnificent accomplishment as this, and get cracking.

I’ve been distracted all week by this tragic display of American foolishness, this lining up at Chick-Fil-A to show solidarity with a perfect jerk who turns his profits over to people like the Family Research Center, a group the Southern Poverty Center calls a hate group.  Watching Americans who are either downright nasty homophobes lining up for crap chicken or clueless suckers campaigning for their Best Friend Jesus, can make you sour indeed on your fellow citizens.

But then, suddenly, I was looking at some fellow citizens with tears rolling down their cheeks, grown men and women, thrilled to the bone that their engineering project had worked, and we were now in for an unspecified period of months and years of learning about another planet in our universe.

A rare and wonderful ride from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Color me a big big fan of the folks at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab.  And the California Institute of Technology.  And teachers of math and science everywhere.

photo credits: Mars landing

for best photos, see the NASA website at:

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