Seasons of Planets

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Montage of planets and Jovian moons imaged by the Voyager mission, Image Credit: NASA

Four Haiku for Planets

Shy Mercury peeks
Flowers tickle its south pole
In young frosty air

Venus flashes Earth
Nubile dome-draping bright orb
Nude in the warm dusk

Jupiter dons stripes
Gas-lit hues of dying leaves
Cast through harvest breeze

Saturn trims the black
Storefront with icy china
Glints on Old Man’s breath

Poet’s Notes

The above represent more completed homework assignments from my journey through Stephen Fry’s wonderful book The Ode Less Travelled.

For my previous foray into planetary haiku, please read this post.

And lastly, I hope you are having a good National Poetry Month.

Planet as Protagonist in ‘Mars Crossing’

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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It’s “The Right Kind of Crazy,” I swear

The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes InnovationThe Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation by Adam Steltzner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first takeaway from “The Right Kind of Crazy” by Adam Steltzner is this: If you want to achieve a come-to-Jesus moment, you need to un-f***-up whatever is holding you back.

Such is the brash but ultimately likable sentiment of Dr. Steltzner’s book, co-written with William Patrick. When his team successfully landed NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, Steltzner oversaw arguably the most revered landing since Apollo 11 reached the surface of the Moon. To understand this incredible engineering feat, you should watch the viral NASA video known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

Curiosity’s landing captivated society. People stayed up late to watch live coverage in Times Square. Space enthusiasts like myself followed Twitter feeds on smartphones grasped in sweaty palms. The next day, A-list comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert featured the landing on their hit Comedy Central shows. Curiosity’s landing incited a cultural crush. Society realized just how colorful, cool, and even sexy, NASA could be. However, Steltzner’s book is not a wistful look back, nor is it an especially accessible primer for newcomers.

As the full title aptly states, the book is, “A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.” With a glaring lack of accompanying images, the co-writers impart the wisdom and perspective Steltzner gained over years of intensive trial-and-error mission development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Right Kind of Crazy” doles out thoughtful anecdotes. Reflections and takeaways come fast and furious. Sometimes the writing exhibits a hasty, back-of-the-envelope quality. This book is not an immaculately laid out management treatise. If it were, the work wouldn’t be so very … Steltzner.

Steltzner brings a crooner’s magnetism to his thought leadership. Though often likened to Elvis, he shows a jazzy Sinatra side as well. In fact, Steltzner drops a lot of musical names and metaphors throughout “The Right Kind of Crazy.” Occasionally I would pause my reading and jump on YouTube to sample the tunes he referenced. The book, like its author, also exudes a sports car driver’s swagger.

This brings us back to this review’s opening. In the book’s first chapter, Steltzner recounts a last-minute software glitch that might have led to mission failure. He sets up a “tiger team” to troubleshoot the problem—or as he puts it, “get it un-f***ed-up if possible.” Later in the same paragraph, this team assembles to have a “come-to-Jesus session.”

It is not the last time Steltzner mixes culture, religion, and profanity to get his points across. This is not reckless communication, even if it is rather loose tongued. With this approach, Steltzner drives to the core of the book’s ethos: engineering and exploration can be good, paradoxically non-destructive, battles. He explains this after referencing another engineer at JPL who swore in a heated intra-staff discussion fueled by competing ideas.

“To many readers that may not seem like very strong language, but for me, coming from an environment where I barely met the people I was working with and everything was filtered through others, this sounded like war. It was the kind of war I wanted to be a part of.”

Elsewhere, Steltzner describes his back and forth with colleagues as punch and counterpunch, like boxers sparring in preparation for the championship bout. Fighting is a recurring motif in the book. Also recurring, quite compatibly, is the notion of engineering displaying sexy, even naughty aspects. “All engineers have lust for designs we want to see realized…” Steltzner explains in a chapter entitled “Puzzle Pieces.”

Sometimes undercutting Steltzner’s noble goals are the complex structures at JPL—both mechanical and organizational. Such complexity forces the authors to do a lot of name dropping, coupled with copious shoptalk. Sometimes it runs together. Yet, the cumulative effect is to reveal the steely beauty of custom spacecraft held together by old-school nuts and bolts. In close-quarters fashion, the book acquaints readers with passionate scientists and engineers, as well as their methodically devised robotic love children.

Steltzner’s brand of crazy rightly offsets the stereotypical notion of NASA personnel as stodgy guys in lab coats. Such a style may challenge the comfort zones of taxpayers, as well as old guard types at NASA. Nevertheless, if the incredible cultural impact of the Curiosity rover’s landing proves lasting, “The Right Kind of Crazy” may come to define 21st Century space exploration.

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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.