Is Curiosity Rover Condemned?

Unforgiving.

In describing the rough terrain Mars Curiosity Rover is currently riding over, Dr. Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan recently employed the word “unforgiving.” As a co-investigator on the Mars Phoenix Lander and a Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, he spoke from a place of authority.

Unforgiving, though. Has the planet Mars placed the Curiosity Rover under condemnation for attempting to scale Mount Sharp in Gale Crater?

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Dr. Nilton Renno fields questions on Mars from an audience at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, following a screening of The Martian

Of course a scientist calling a planet’s terrain unforgiving is a scientist using a figurative expression to convey sense of place—specifically Mars, a distant exotic locale that neither he nor his audience will ever personally visit. Unforgiving seems a great word. In addition to coming close to the topographical reality of Mount Sharp, it taps into my sense of emotion.

Having at times in life felt myself wanting forgiveness, the impression becomes acute. If the Curiosity Rover is crossing unforgiving terrain, the surface must be rough and difficult. There must be no easy way forward or back. Perhaps the terrain is taking a toll on the rover’s components. Am I suddenly feeling empathy for a machine?

Here then is the curious side effect of calling physical terrain unforgiving. I sit here feeling emotion for a machine. I’m like Han Solo staring longingly at the Millennium Falcon. Is this a good thing? I believe so. Dr. Renno’s word choice succeeds on a pedagogical level, taking me closer to the literal reality of Mars by way of figurative language.

To learn more about Curiosity’s unforgiving location, visit NASA JPL.

Science as an Avenue for Pleasure

“To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, from Chapter 2

Our Obligation to the Possible

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In 2005, Michael D. Griffin, in his Senate confirmation hearing to become NASA Administrator, all but said, We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.

Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard
April 27, 2005, Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. NASA’s 11th administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

Dr. Griffin appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee a little over two years after the Shuttle Columbia disaster. His remarks make clear he and President George W. Bush saw themselves as presiding over the end of the Shuttle program, the ongoing “Space Station Era”, and the beginning of a new era of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Click here for a PDF of Dr. Griffin’s complete Statement

From a structural standpoint, Griffin’s remarks reminded me of a strategy touted in presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s book On Speaking Well. She says colloquially, “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em—tell ‘em—then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” (pg. 24, paperback edition).

What is the essence of Michael D. Griffin’s message to ‘em, ‘em being the Senate Commerce Committee?

“The strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

This is plain and simple enough. But with what literary oomph does Griffin drive his message? First, he invokes Columbus, 1492, and the political backing provided by Isabella, Queen of Aragon. Griffin’s remarks are not a tired tribute to a historical figure who has largely fallen out of favor. He uses Columbus’s voyage, and more particularly Isabella’s role in it, to demonstrate a politically savvy justification for engaging in exploration.

Why did Columbus secure funding? Because the Queen recognized the inevitability of Columbus’s mission and wanted to make sure Spain, not some other country, lead the way and took the credit.

I return to my phony quote from the top. “We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.”

Griffin’s remarks are laced with word choices that infuse a sense of achieving the possible in the context of what is inevitable and/or necessary. He speaks, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, of flying the Shuttle “as safely as possible…” He speaks of developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle “as soon as possible…” He announces “a lunar return program having the maximum possible utility…” And when he invokes Spain’s backing of Columbus, he speaks of that 15th Century effort as being “at the edge of what was technologically possible.”

Yet Griffin’s remarks strike me less as anthemic and, in word choice and subtext, more as steeped in a sense of obligation. His speech starts with a list of priorities to execute “the duties” of the office of NASA Administrator. He speaks of the completion of the Space Station as a matter of international “commitments.” Most explicitly, right after concluding his colonial history lesson, he says the following:

“In the twenty-first century and beyond, for America to continue to be preeminent among nations, it is necessary for us also to be the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

To a Republican administration in 2005 at least, exploration of the Moon and beyond may have seemed as inevitable as the European colonization of the Americas. There is even, perhaps intentionally, a little nod to Queen Isabella late in the speech. Griffin speaks of NASA’s science programs as being “crown jewels of the nation’s achievements.” A page earlier in the speech he spoke of the story of Queen Isabella “pledging her jewels to back the voyage” of Columbus.

These brief references to jewels, literal and metaphoric, are the most romantic Griffin’s statement gets. As he makes clear in his closing remarks, the nation’s exploration of space was not in jeopardy in 2005. Only at stake was its commitment to remaining on the edge of possibility, leading the way deeper into space than any other nation. For some, this obligation to the possible—for the sake of political supremacy—is reason enough to resume exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

‘Eruption’ for Fated Characters

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. HelensEruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.

“But that’s a misconception…”

–Steve Olson

The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.

As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.

For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.

Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them.

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