Adventures on the Red Planet

Posted: January 29, 2012 by writingsprint in Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Roving Mars

Spend some time inside Mission Control

There’s a bumper sticker on my car with vivid red and gold stripes, the silhouette of a machine, and the bold, giant words, “FREE SPIRIT.” I put it on back in 2009 to show my support for Spirit, the plucky NASA rover that had become bogged down in sand after exploring the red planet for twenty times longer than scientists originally planned. Roving Mars is the story of the Mars Exploration Rover program from its inception to the end of the first nine months of a mission that still continues today.

Roving Mars begins as Steve Squyres is starting his tenure in the Cornell University’s astronomy department. The work doesn’t give him much chance to pursue his childhood dreams of exploring the uncharted parts of a map, or tapping into the geology of another world. While attending an international symposium on space travel, Squyres meets an engineer who can help him develop a camera that could be used to explore Mars. The two men form a team and begin submitting proposals to NASA. The story follows Squyres and his team from the proposal process into the fangs of NASA and government politics and budgeting. The victory of approval to go ahead leads to tightrope walk of developing the rovers, where every wrench turned too tight, every wire frayed, every speck or smudge is a chance to blow millions of dollars of effort. Finally, the rovers are launched into space and land on Mars, and the reader becomes a fly on the wall in the mission control centers.

You get a real feel for how it feels to be a NASA scientist. Pitching a great idea to NASA, for example, feels like pitching a script to a big movie company. Great idea, kid. Better luck next time…. Those six words, “you get a real feel for,” sum up what you come away with from the book. The biggest surprise of the book is how it gives us the personal side of the mission, the scientists, and a feel for the names and faces and political pressures that go into a science mission. Your experience of NASA scientists is probably the same as mine: you saw Apollo 13 and you’ve watched them being interviewed on the evening news. They’re so mind-blowingly smart that you nod politely as you watch, and hope to hear something you might understand. You probably didn’t know one of the team members barely graduated high school, was a new wave rocker and avid surfer, before astronomy caught his eye. Did you know that aluminum on one of the test instruments on the rovers was taken from ground zero in New York, as a tribute to the victims of 9/11? It might also surprise you to know that your best and brightest are flying coach and staying in cheap hotels as they prepare to send America’s hopes and dreams into space.

Free Spirit

Free Spirit!

Squyres is an engaging storyteller and the book is written with a sense of satisfaction and wonder. The dark red cover creates an image of a lonely robot on a deserted world far from home that hangs over the book every time you pick it up. This works in a good way. It sets the human victories against a dark, menacing backdrop, that makes them all the more brave and poignant, like Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

Roving Mars is a good book for anyone, a great book for science enthusiasts, and a must read for those who love space exploration and the sense of adventure, courage and wonder that comes with it. My dream is that one day we’ll see a picture of an astronaut standing next to the Spirit rover, like the visit Apollo 12 astronauts made to Surveyor III after their landing on the moon.

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