[I’m a rocketman]
The United States is the only country thus far that has been able to put a spacecraft on the surface of Mars. To date, it has done it 6 times – 3 soft landings (2 Viking craft in 1976 and the Phoenix lander in 2008) and 3 “hard” landings on bouncing airbags (Pathfinder in 1997 and 2 Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004).
Are you ready?
U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Sorry for the jingoism but the reality is that to pitch an object out of Earth orbit, have it travel some 50 million miles (give or take depending on planet positions), and have this package end up on the Martian surface intact and in good working order (the really important part!) is pretty damned tough. How tough? Well, so tough that the engineers on these projects use those hardened, grave, macho-sounding acronyms that are a left-over from the test pilot days of NASA’s Mercury Program.
The key acronym for us is EDL. That is: “Entry, Descent, & Landing.” That’s:
- Entry into the (Martian) atmosphere,
- Descent through the (Martian) atmosphere, and finally
- Landing on the (Martian) surface.
It’s an incredibly complex process as you might imagine and the real kicker is that it must all be done automatically.
That’s right. Without any human intervention of any kind.
Any craft landing on Mars is so far away from us that it will take minutes to have a radio signal (which travels at the speed of light) cover the Earth-Mars distance. That delay is simply too long to communicate anything useful to the craft given how fast the lander is falling(!) to the surface of Mars. Just as the light we see from the Sun left the Sun eight minutes previously, all the signals we receive from our Mars spacecraft left Mars about 10 minutes in the past (give or take depending on planet positions).
So you need a full-out, on-board computer to land that sucker. In fact, all the people from NASA can do in the EDL phase is watch the signals sent from the craft as it does its thing automatically. This is what it looked like in mission control during the last successful landing on Mars (the shots “from Mars” are just animation to illustrate what’s going on with the craft):
That’s about as excited as you’ll see
geeks rocket scientists get when they accomplish a miracle that most normal folks couldn’t even begin to sketch out on the back of an envelope.
Color them ecstatic.
Now the EDL (don’t you just feel like a hot-shit test pilot saying that?) for the Mars Science Laboratory mission is even more complex. How complex? Well, watch this short video explaining it (don’t worry, the video went viral so you know it’s pretty good):
Phew! Pretty wicked nifty keen-o sick, wasn’t it? (And wasn’t it cool to know what “EDL Engineer” meant?)
There are great production values in this little clip: great graphics, great editing, even a little John-Williams-ish martial music… but the most impressing thing about this video as that we get an explanation of the mission from the very people who have sweated each and every detail of EDL. These are the very engineers who evaluated the trade-offs, spent long hours checking and rechecking calculations, assimilated massive amounts of experimental test data, and then put their entire reputations on the line in front of the entire world for evaluation.
Because evaluation is very simple for us armchair space-jockeys: did the Curiosity rover crash onto the surface? Or not?
And these are the engineers who will have a lot of ‘splaining to do if a boo-boo happens. (After all, this single mission cost NASA $2.5 billion — nearly $1 billion overbudget. At those prices, failure is — most definitely — not an option.)
Little wonder these engineers’ visages are tense, thoughtful, and with a hint of lower-lip-biting doubt. They are conveying the hard-won understanding they have actually thought and lived on a day-to-day basis.
That’s why this video is so riveting.
And yet, this week, the PR folks at NASA released two other pieces on the mission, also with a lot of emphasis on the EDL portion. They are essentially the same video, except one is narrated by William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk of Star Trek) and the other is narrated by Wil Wheaton (aka Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation). Watch these pieces if you must but know that they aren’t nearly as compelling as the previous video. (And I’m not just referring to the fact you can see Shatner’s eyes read the script while he is talking.) That NASA released two of essentially the same thing is the biggest clue why they released these videos at all.
This is a PR person’s view of how to get the public’s attention: you can only sell NASA to the public (no bucks, no Buck Rogers) under the marquee of actors who have played well-known spacemen in the media. Between Shatner and Wheaton you cover a lot of the audience that watch television spacemen — literally generations of Star Trek fans. And that is the important thing in a star-struck PR person’s eyes. Never mind that you could have chosen an actual astronaut to narrate (this is NASA, after all!). Never mind that you could have chosen a charismatic project engineer to narrate (you’ve already shown that, after all!).
You must turn all the exciting reality back to the fantasy world of Hollywood and take two actors with no more science background than saying “beam me up” and place them front and center, give them a script, and have them read lines about technology that they are about as emotionally involved in as dilithium crystals. The result is far more tepid than the Mars Science Laboratory mission deserves… even, perhaps, turning the narrative into a boring high school science lecture to those with just a passing interest in the space program.
But what a fine, inspirational message NASA sends out to America’s students: Study hard, take demanding courses in engineering and science, work long hours for reward and pay that is, on average, less than you might expect to find in an equivalent high-tech job in corporate America — all to have your work presented by a television actor who knows as much about the mission as is in the script handed to him. A script that you were probably asked to write.
U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
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