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Review of Roving Mars

Engineer, aerospace technology enthusiast and Webdiarist, Malcolm Street blew people's minds with his January 2003 article Anti-gravity and us where he suggested that anti-gravity technology "could be behind the otherwise (in my view) inexplicable level of support given Bush over Iraq by Howard and Blair." The next month  in addition to Collecting the debris on the Columbia disaster, Malcolm wrote:  "it may not be anti-gravity as such but electric 'propellantless' thrust which can, of course, be used to generate extra lift. A phenomenon called the Bifeld-Brown effect is at the bottom of it supposedly."

Malcolm's 2001 piece, on the importance of Sydney and its threat to the rest of us,  is worth checking out again after the last four years. Today he reviews Steve Squyres, Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the exploration of the red planet.

Review of Roving Mars

by Malcolm Street

I was at first somewhat surprised when Margo asked me to review this book. What interest would the readers of Webdiary have in the inside story of a space mission, albeit one as well-known and contemporary as the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers? I was to be much further surprised when I read the book; it is far from being a dry technical history and apart from being a very complete insider's account of one of the most remarkable feats of exploration of our time, it is also a deeply human book, showing a very different side to the world of hard-core bleeding edge technology and its practitioners, of egos, wonder, poetic insights and even superstition, and the battles that go on behind the scenes. It also shows just how damn hard this stuff is, the immense amounts of patience and determination needed to see a project like this to a successful completion.

The planet Mars has always held a special fascination for us; the distinctive red planet, onto which our dreams and fears have been projected for millenia, from the ancient god of war, due to its red colour, through the discovery of markings misinterpreted as canals built by intelligent life, through to early-60's NASA dreams of a world where humans may be able to survive with only an oxygen mask.

All this was abruptly terminated forty years ago, when the Mariner 4 probe conducted the first fly-by of Mars and took the first close-up photographs of its surface. It was a rude awakening; here was a desolate, cratered planet more like the moon, with only a very thin atmosphere.

Since then the story of Mars has become more nuanced. Later, more sophisticated probes found that Mariner 4 in fact flew past one of the most boring areas of a very interesting planet, and also found tantalising signs that Mars at one stage may have had large quantities of water on the surface, and possibly still had some underground. And on Earth, wherever there is water, there is life... Not only that, but if life had arisen in the past on Mars, because of the planet's comparative lack of geological activity, there would be much more likelihood of the evidence of its beginning still existing than on Earth. It is Mars that could hold the ultimate key to the development of life on our own planet.

Mars hasn't given up its secrets easily, proving a graveyard for space probes; over half of all probes sent by both the US and the USSR failing. However it has now been the site of the most ambitious and successful space probe lander mission ever: the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Roving Mars is the story of this extraordinary project.

The author, Steve Squyres, the scientific principal investigator for the project, is a geologist. Inspired in his youth by tales of exploration by Amudsen and Scott in the Antartic, and the pioneering deep sea explorers, he gradually realised that geology felt like filling in the details; that the days of great discoveries on earth were over. Then in 1977, at Cornell University, although still an undergraduate, he talked his way into a graduate seminar course on Mars, which included data gathered from the then-recent Viking probes. The planet that I saw in those pictures is a beautiful, terrible, desolate place. He had found his new territory to explore! What he wanted was, not an orbiter, but a probe to land there, to perform close-up geology. It took twenty-six years to see that undergraduate dream to come true...

The bulk of the book consists of three very distinct, contrasting parts.

Beginnings describes how the project got going; it's an eye-opening view of the shenanigans, manoevring, cooperation and competition required to get a NASA space probe proposal accepted. A major task was to draw together a multi-disciplinary team with the required skills. On every space project there is a tension: the idealistic, impractical scientists against the stubborn, practical engineers. Indeed the story revolves around the interraction of people from these very different disciplines.

Another recurring theme is the patience to keep going when project after project is cancelled, postponed or cut back in a chaotic period that included the failures of several other NASA Mars probes, before the project is given the go-ahead as a development of the one project that worked: the Mars Pathfinder and its small Sojourner rover of 1997. Squyres realises then that it could be a poisoned chalice: NASA's decision process had dragged on for so long that our schedule was almost impossible... a big chunk of the credibility of the nation's space program was now riding on our mission.

The second section, Development traces the hectic, chaotic development and building of the probes, up to and including the launch and is a classic case study of project management. It reinforces my feelings from limited acquaintance with that field that it is 10% running the project as planned and 90% dealing with the inevitable stuff-ups!

There are multitudes of them, creating a cascade effect. Notably the weight problem...

To meet project goals the solar panels need to supply enough power for ninety Martian days. (Sols, 39 minutes longer than an Earth day). As the dust in the Martian atmosphere settled on them, the output would gradually reduce. Proposals for cleaning them are too complex and too heavy. So the area of the panels needs to be increased. But this increases the weight beyond the limits of the Pathfinder lander. So they have to design a new lander, increasing cost and putting further pressure on an already very tight schedule. Then the Pathfinder airbags, used to cushion the landing, turn out not to be able to take the extra weight and so new reinforced airbags have to be developed. Then the extra weight requires a larger parachute which proves unstable in wind tunnel tests...

So its goes for three hectic years, with the threat of one rover being cancelled and an immutable 2003 launch window hanging over the team. Somewhere along the line, as things become more frenetic and all-absorbing, the rovers, now named Spirit and Opportunity, become she instead of it.

Finally the first probe, Spirit, is completed and launched on its Boeing Delta II rocket: A rocket launch is a frightening, beautiful, violent thing to watch. As he views the launch, he doesn't feel what he had expected over the years of effort: ...in this endless mental loop my feelings were always ones of pure, unalloyed joy. Yet he finds that when the real event arrives ...there was fear, too, and a strange sadness. Spirit was leaving forever, and the best we could wish for her was a one-way trip with certain death at the end.

Even now the problems continue: the launch of the second rover, Opportunity, is repeatedly postponed almost to the end of its launch window due to problems with the insulation on the Delta rocket: cork!

With both probes launched, the story moves to the third section, Flight dealing with the flight to Mars, the landings themselves and the discoveries made by the rovers, up to late 2004. This section is largely written as day-by-day diary, a first-hand account of this remarkable feat of exploration as it happens, as dramatic new insights into Mars coming up one after the other, the rovers going on to exceed their creators' wildest dreams.

As the probes near Mars, readying for a hazardous descent that they have no further control over, superstition comes to fore among the team, the last things one would expect from ultra-logical scientists and engineers! Talismans begin to appear in the mission control room (include SpongeBob SquarePants!), and as Spirit approaches Mars ...Adler's breaking out the good-luck peanuts. The story is that during one of the Ranger missions to the Moon, back in the early sixties, somebody at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's unmanned space probe centre] brought some peanuts into the control room to snack on. That Ranger succeeded, the first to do so after many failures, and since that days peanuts have been a fixture during critical events for JPL mission. When Opportunity starts its (her?) approach, many people are wearing the same outfit that they wore for the first landing, myself included... we still need all the good mojo we can get.

Spirit lands successfully, elation giving way to despair as it goes off-line, before mission control is able to hack a cure. Opportunity, incredibly, lands within 80 m of its designated landing site, right on top of a prime geological site. The rovers begin their explorations, almost like babies learning to walk, with their first tentative rolls off the landers, exploring the immediate vicinity, then off to more remote areas. The team spends several months working to Mars time, with chaotic impact on their normal lives.

Opportunity seems to strike the geological jackpot wherever it goes; Spirit is the problem child until an epic (for the rovers) two and a half kilometer, sixty sol, drive to a feature dubbed the Columbia Hills. But both make their mark on history; they have proven beyond any doubt that at one stage Mars had large areas of liquid water on its surface. The narrative finishes in September 2004, with the rovers still going strong, way beyond the ninety sols that they were designed for, and having survived their first Martian winter, and the author mulling over their distant future.

Unifying these contrasting sections is a vivid first person view; the author comes across as driven, ingenious, at times ruthless, wondering frequently what he had got himself involved in, but all the time propelled by an unquenchable thirst for new knowledge, and an unfailing, almost childlike, sense of wonder when it appears.

It's also a very human and emotional story, of extremes of hope and despair. Squyres' changing emotions come over in a raw fashion, sometimes in ways that he doesn't expect, as with seeing the launch of Spirit. Later, when Spirit lands on Mars, and the first pictures start to come back from the panoramic camera, Pancam: there's Jim Bell, the lead scientist for Pancam, all alone... There are tears in his eyes. On the screen is Mars, with colors so perfect and details so sharp it's like being there yourself. He looks up at me.

"It works, man... It works"

"...I can't believe how good this feels. But I'm not going to get all misty-eyed. I'm cool. ...suddenly the events and emotions of the day come tumbling down on me... The whole damn thing is on Mars. I dissolve into tears."

The book is of reasonable length, just under 400 pages of the main narrative, with no padding, and is supplemented by an excellent selection of photographs of the rovers, of Mars and, most revealing of all, of the members of the team at several project milestones. It is clearly written, and he makes his highly technical subjects, notably geology and electronic instrumentation, easily understandable to the lay reader. Appendices include a labelled diagram of the rover, a comprehensive glossary of jargon, and the longest list of acknowledgements I've ever seen, including everyone who put into the project, an illustration of the generosity of spirit that is also evident in the author. It is completed by a comprehensive index.

It's a fascinating account of a remarkable exploration achievement and also shows the human side behind the worlds of science and high technology. And with pace and twists and turns that would do credit to a thriller, it's also a ripping yarn!

...............

While the two rovers were in flight, I had my first close-up look at Mars, at a commercial observatory outside Dubbo. There was the red planet itself, the white of the south polar ice caps and the mysterious dark blotches over it, just as in the textbooks. Since then Spirit and Opportunity have told us more about the planet than all previous Mars landers put together. And they're still going; incredibly, the rovers designed for ninety days of operation are still operating after nearly two years, a year after the close of Roving Mars.

They're the latest expression of an unbroken string of fascination with the planets that goes back through space flight, back through the invention of the telescope, back through the ancient astronomers of Babylon and Egypt and back to the earliest humans wondering what these mysterious wandering objects were. It's one of the oldest, most numinous and to me most noble of human cultural endeavours.

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re: Review of Roving Mars

Malcolm, thanks for the reminder of what's ultimately the most important thing for our species: the beginning of a solution for expansionist genes stuck on a planet of limited life-span and finite resources.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Beautiful. This is the human spirit we love and breathe for. For all of us.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Steve Squyres was Guest of Honour and Plenary Lecturer at the annual meeting of Mars Society Australia in Canberra this August. He is at least as enthusiastic and engaging in person as in writing.

The MSA (I am not a member) is one of a number of sister societies dotted around the world which share the aim of researching technologies and knowledge that will facilitate manned missions to Mars. Having met a good number of them at the meeting, they range from academics to industrial scientists and engineers to amateur enthusiasts, and from teenagers to retirees. Topics covered at the meeting covered subjects such as the psychodynamics of groups of people cooped up in confined spaces for months on end, building practical marsmobiles in a garage, new designs of robust and efficient rocket drives, current knowledge of Martian surface chemistry and landforms, and how to recognise fossil or living Martian microbes.

There seems to be a fair old community worldwide working on things like this on a low-budget, local level, but in communication with the big space agencies. Once manned missions start, there should be a fair body of useful knowhow waiting to be applied.

re: Review of Roving Mars

It just brings tears to my eyes as this is an example of what we can do. We can reach for the stars and beyond yet we all are embroiled into the petty issues such as Iraq, terrorism, security, border protection etc etc etc.

What is particularly daunting is that there seems no way out of this downward spiral to anarchy, not in a hurry anyway.

I hope for mankind that we do rise above this period of navel gazing and realise the potential of what we are capable off.

re: Review of Roving Mars

The Review of Roving Mars by Malcolm Street was uplifting.

“..it's an eye-opening view of the shenanigans, maneuvering, cooperation and competition required to get a NASA space probe proposal accepted. A major task was to draw together a multi-disciplinary team with the required skills. On every space project there is a tension: the idealistic, impractical scientists against the stubborn, practical engineers. Indeed the story revolves around the interaction of people from these very different disciplines.”

The process of achieving a goal like that of every challenge we face as humans. We need the idealistic dreamers and there will always be tension with the idealists and the stubborn, practical engineers. Webdiary is full of the idealistic dreamers and stubborn practical types. It is when we come together that we can achieve anything worth while.

If we could agree on some common goals it would be a first step in achieving them. Our future is unlimited if we have big dreams and the willingness to work together.

History shows us communities come together when they have common goals.

The Millennium Development Goals:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

If we could achieve these goals the future of the human race would be fantastic. Space exploration would be the next big step and if there is intelligent life on other planets maybe they would feel we have progressed far enough for us to be worth talking too.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Like many kids in the 1960s, I was enthralled with the Apollo program, and of course beguiled with Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrik’s bold vision, in their film 2001 A Space Odyssey, of a grand future for humanity in outer space.

Clarke may have pioneered the concept of communications satellites, which today we take for granted, but he was not quite so prescient with his prediction of scheduled Pan Am flights by 2001 plying the void between Earth and Moon.

Not only is Pan Am a blessed memory now missing from our grand vista, but NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently made the startling, yet probably overdue admission that, after all this time, “We’re in the very early stages of learning how to do space flight. It’s just barely possible to do it.”

Another problem barely acknowledged is that, due to the possibility of genetic damage from prolonged exposure to the cosmic radiation that rages beyond the protective layers of Mother Earth, space travelers may have to forfeit reproductive rights once they leave our fair blue firmament.

Colonising other worlds? Mastery of the Universe? Keep your feet on the ground, folks, because we can’t even master the problems of our poor wounded earthly home.

The only “benefit” that may accrue from advancing our present shambolic attempts at space travel would be the launching of an interplanetary Ark to convey an unhappy, residual band of human survivors to the next planet that will have to suffer our depredations.

re: Review of Roving Mars

The possibility of large numbers of individual Homo sapiens traveling to other planets, within and outside of our solar system, is currently remote and not economically viable (sorry, I've just said the E word).

Dispersing genetic material however might be a more practical way of safeguarding species.

Panspermia is gaining respectability as a theory of how life got to Earth in first place.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Jacob A Stam: "The only “benefit” that may accrue from advancing our present shambolic attempts at space travel would be the launching of an interplanetary Ark to convey an unhappy, residual band of human survivors to the next planet that will have to suffer our depredations."

But, man, don't those little Rovers send back amazing pictures...

re: Review of Roving Mars

PS to my comments. I forgot to thank Malcom Street for writing the piece.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Quite right, C Parsons, an ancillary benefit is the techno-filler stuff to adorn the glossy magazines and such, that are so necessary to distract us from the steady degradation of a planet that we have so egregiously abused and roundly spurned, as evident in our unholy rush to flee into the cosmic yonder in the pursuit of...

What exactly? 'Advancing our knowledge'? To what end? To amuse our boredom? Or to consume new worlds as we discover them?

The knowledge deficit is in our own self-knowledge. And I shouldn't need point out, here of all places, that a consumption-based cosmology is environmentally unsound.

But further, to reprise the old quip: Why was the late Carl Sagan so lonely? Not content with communicating with several billion other sentient beings in the immediate biosphere, Sagan's advancement of the SETI programme was a monumentally expensive and wasteful folly.

Results: Cosmos infinity; Sagan zip, nought, nul, zero, period.

And finally, may I ask: What has aerospace science ever done for us? I mean, apart from microelectronic, medical, telecommunications and myriad other technological and engineering advances...

re: Review of Roving Mars

Margo, thanks for publishing and everyone thanks for the comments. Some quotation marks went adrift somewhere but it should be pretty obvious what are quotations from the book and what are not.

Re: anti-gravity. There's at least another story in there but not at the moment. The "Biefeld-Brown Effect" by the way turned out to be a furphy.

Jacob Stam, one point I had in an early draft and probably should have kept in was that views of the utility of space exploration are too often clouded by the undeniable shambles of NASA's manned space program over the last thirty years. In contrast the unmanned space probes have had spectacular successes on a fraction of the budget and hype.

I don't see any hurry to get humans to Mars, although I'd hope there'd be a permanent, self supporting human base of say a couple of thousand there by the end of this century. There's massive problems with radiation for the months' long journey required (as Jacob mentions) and also bone wastage in extended periods of zero-g. This is one of many reasons I can't take the Bush govt's new manned Mars plans seriously; they proposed ending support of the International Space Station but without that how are they going to test how astronauts go over a Mars mission duration?

I remember the Sunday program at the time (1988?) talking about Voyager 2's pioneering pass by Neptune saying that Voyager 2 was a human cultural achievement up there with the likes of the Mona Lisa! And I'd agree...

re: Review of Roving Mars

I was a little disappointed to read comments from John Pratt and Jacob A Stam putting down the thrust back into space exploration.

I believe it shows a lack of understanding of the more primal and instead noble aspects of human nature.

We need to strive, to conquer worlds (physically and metaphorically).

Without the drive to space in the 1950s and 1960s, it is unlikely we'd have Webdiary (no internet), limited advances in telecommunications and commuting, even transportation would be limited by lack of progress in jet engines.

What a glorious contradiction we humans are - we need competition and, sadly even war to make technological leaps forward.

Imagine life without the advances we quite rightly take for granted now - it might have been days, if not weeks to hear about the devastating earthquake in Kashmir if not for instant satellite communication. Tens of thousands more may have died if we didn't have heavy machinery and helicopters to distribute aid.

Who knows what future space exploration will bring - 100% efficent solar panels? More efficient transportation? New resources to allievate world hunger (although getting rid of corrupt 3rd world dictators would be a good start).

We need to reach for the stars - people do their best when they're forward thinking.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Let me get this straight... We are looking to send people to another planet for the expansion of the species! This concept is a good idea, but why would you attempt to do that on a barren lifeless rock like Mars, wouldn't it be better to keep looking for a better alternative and in the meantime attempt to achieve the things John Pratt is suggesting, who knows we may cause such a difference on our own planet that we won't need to look for another one to live on.

If Mars does have water under the surface then it stands to reason that things should grow, even given the supposed millions of years for life to adapt to the environment. I think John is on the right track, we need to clean up our act as a species before we turn our planet into a lifeless barren rock, or is it possible that we as a species started life on a beautifully lush planet called Mars, stuffed it completely with an all out planet destroying war and moved onto our present planet to survive (maybe this why the myth of Mars the God of war is still in our history).

One way or the other moving to Mars is not going to solve any issues here on Earth, so lets spend the funds down here and not out there. We have many technological discoveries here on Earth that would help make those changes John is advocating, but as usual if there is no money in it, or if it threatens the profit of the multi nationals, then it gets put in a drawer and to hell with ethics! I don't mean to put down the efforts of those involved in space research, but couldn't those same highly skilled and intelligent people be paid to do Earth research?

re: Review of Roving Mars

Jacob A Stam: "...'Advancing our knowledge'? To what end? To amuse our boredom? Or to consume new worlds as we discover them?..."

Jacob, you old cynic. Given the right political impetes, our planet could well afford environmentalism and the final frontier.

Was Copernicus wasting his time?

Did George III ill afford wasting his tax payers' money on James Cook's peregrinations to Tahiti and the South Pole?

I mean, what good could have come of such time-wasting?

re: Review of Roving Mars

Well bugger me Jacob!

Here I am, a greying fart gaining in years and thinning in hairs, going all nostalgic over the space programme – again. Remembering the Apollo models in the Kellog's Corn Flake boxes, the multi-page spreads in the SMH (Mirror, Sun etc), and that never to be forgotten black and white first moonwalk (fuzzy, grainy and generally crappy by later standards though it was). Nights spent with eye glued to the telescope I'd bought on lay-bye from Sydney Wide Discounts. The weekends spent designing, building and flying model rockets (even made into the local paper!) instead of doing that bloody assignment on Thucydyides or the Ager Publicus and the Gracchi agrarian reforms. And, of course, the creek out past our back fence that proved a mighty good replica of "Haddley Rille".

Reliving that sense of wonder – that most anything might be possible – I had looking into the night sky…what if…one day…

When, bouncing in from t'other side – like Tigger into a Pooh Bear cartoon – comes Jacob - with the ultimate reality uppercut: "shambolic attempts", "possibility of genetic damage" and "the next planet that will have to suffer our depredations".

I can hear Doctor Smith: "Oh Jacob, the pain, the pain." But another (fictitious) doctor put it better: "For God's sake Jacob, I'm a dreamer not a doctor!

Park to enterprise: Energise!

re: Review of Roving Mars

And finally, may I ask: What has aerospace science (the "Space Programme") ever done for us?

Well, there's the cruise missile programme. And the Teflon coated cooking appliances! Yeah! The Teflon. Remember how bad it was before the Teflon?!

Right. Apart from the cruise missile programme and Teflon, what has the Space Programme ever done for us?

Ah, satellite communications and mapping?

Yes, yes, all right. But aside from the cruise missile programme, teflon, satellite communications and mapping, what has the Space Programme ever done for us?

GPS? Yeah! The Space Programme gave us GPS! And the CCD for digital photography. Yeah, right the CCD. What about the medical advances and better weather forecasting. Yeah, it gave us…

Alright! ALRIGHT! Now, apart from the cruise Missile programme, teflon, satellite communications and mapping, GPS, the Charged Couple Device and better bleedin' weather forecasting – apart from all that lot – WHAT has the bleedin' Space Programme ever done for us?

That's right – NOTHING! – that's what!

re: Review of Roving Mars

If you consider the Universe and in particular our small corner of it in geological rather than human time perspectives, it's a very violent place. Just have a look at the Moon. Because it doesn't have an atmosphere it permanently records past bombardments.

The Moon itself was the result of an ancient impact that tore a sizeable chunk off the Earth.

Cometary and asteroidal impacts are statistical probabilities and we're probably overdue.

A nearby supernova would microwave us.

There are other cosmic events that are absolutely certain, the eventual expansion of our Sun past Earth orbit, and entropy.

Sure, there are a lot of sensible things we should be doing on Earth. There are also lots of trivial things we're doing - just do an inventory on the cost of TV soap operas.

It's just not safe or responsible to carry our genes and thousands of years of endeavor in one basket.

If you don't think space research is worth genetic and cultural survival then settle back in your caves and watch Neighbours.

re: Review of Roving Mars

C Parsons, my dear fellow, you think me a cynic? Having great regard for your wideranging erudition (sincerely), I'm obliged to apply long moments of the most weighty consideration - before utterly rejecting this charge. As I must do, CP, because what I am is of course a realist.

I'm perplexed, and it weakens your case immeasurably, that you cite as your paragon of discovery and exploration the plodding hack Copernicus, who waited until he was nigh on his deathbed to publish De Revolutionibus. Even so, it was presented as an exposition of an intellectual exercise rather than as a representation of empirical reality. Thus did Copernicus leave it to his successors to face the instruments of torture. Galileo duly did so but, of course, recanted for entirely understandable, though hardly heroic reasons.

Another Copernican, one Johannes Kepler, pursued meticulous astronomical observations and analyses with a view to refining his astrological forecasts. Thus he would be remembered today only with curiosity if at all, had he not got it all so inadvertently but spectacularly right. On the other hand, he should perhaps be remembered affectionately if for no other reason than having taken on and prevailed against the unstable tyrant Tycho.

Curious also that you cite Cook, obedient servant to a sovereign Lord with an eye on maintaining and consolidating empire, and emptying the hulks of England's unwanted. Cook should have stayed in Yorkshire out of harm's way, and the indigenous peoples of many hitherto unknown lands would have thanked him for it.

re: Review of Roving Mars

G'day Michael, I think what you're trying to tell me is that I should get back in touch with my inner space cadet. But, Michael, the poor little chap expired incrementally with the passing of the Apollo programme, the demise of Pan Am, the disintegration of the two ill-fated shuttle craft, etc.

I've tried to revive him on a number of occasions. Including one night not long ago when I tuned into a late night rerun of Lost In Space. It was one of those rare episodes in which they were actually "in space". The Jupiter II was trapped in the gravitational field of a comet, which as the ship was inexorably drawn to certain doom, threatened to roast the Space Family Robinson inside the hull. In other words, the comet was radiating heat energy. I turned the thing off in disgust. So too with that dog's breakfast of a movie version.

Over the years I've tried to resist the siren song of those conspiracy theories concerning the supposed fabrication of those moon landings. Yet, when I consider that they can't even put a crate like the shuttle into earth orbit without major concerns and dramas, my resistance wanes. But ultimately, weariness sets in. And so, CP and your good self suppose me a cynic.

No, no, Michael, the little fellow is gone, he is no more, ceased to be, expired, ne'er again to cast wide-eyed regard upon that starry dome. 'Tis all in pieces...

Oh, and you caught my reference to that Python sketch, eh? These 'boomers are so incorrigible.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Malcolm Street: "In contrast the unmanned space probes have had spectacular successes on a fraction of the budget and hype."

Indeed, Malcolm, if there's a future in space, it will primarily involve remote operated vehicles and robotics. At least until there's some truly revolutionary breakthroughs to make space travel radically less inimical to flesh and blood.

By the way I'm actually not really such a wet blanket about all this stuff. Just a bit jaded perhaps, maybe a little disappointed in the failure to deliver on the promise of early successes of the so-called space age (now an anachronism, we're in the Info/Postmod Age). As a wide-eyed space-obsessed kid I was full of enthusiasm for 'the great adventure'. I fully expected by now to be holidaying by the Sea of Tranquility.

Anyway, Malcolm, I did enjoy your review, with thanks, and will look out for the book.

Also, I'm in fact rather an admirer of Carl Sagan, Copernicus, Kepler, even Galileo, and want to stress that my comments about them hereabouts are made with tongue firmly in cheek.

re: Review of Roving Mars

Damn near as stupid as Professor Robinson re-entering the atmosphere of that "uncharted" planet (given one can re-enter that which one hasn't actually left) which was to become home for the first series Jacob (to cries of "Don! Don!". "John! John!") By the way, it being "uncharted" meant it did not appear in the Rand-McNally as opposed to having little airplay due to "Hey Jude"?

"It's science fiction Jim, but not as we know it".

Unfortunately NASA (that terminally mismanaged off-shoot of the military complex) dropped the ball with the line open at the back end of the Apollo programme. A president more inclined to direct those billions to an unwinnable Southeast Asian war (whilst telling all and sundry that he was getting out and not a little to do with finishing off Kennedy's "to the moon and back" idea).

The idea should have been the extension manned exploration – not just to the moon – and the technologies needed to go with it. The compromise that became the "Space Shuttle" is what we are left with. Thirty year technology (the "airframe" and hardware) and a forty year old concept leading to breakdowns and death. The current NASA plans for a re-usable vehicle, bases around a more traditional capsule concept indicate how stillborn the shuttle was as a "work-vehicle" capable of significant payload delivery.

Still, romantic "boomers" may still dream through the imaginings of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red/green/Blue Mars and Stephen Baxter's Time. Baxter's book is quite good at describing the "rusting hulks of Saturn V technology…" and the dilapidated state of the US Space Programme as the Chinese lead the way. Most prescient at the time.

With the Red Planet up in the north east at night, I must go by that 8" reflector I've been eyeing off so as I can show my nine year old son and seven year old daughter that which got their old man out of bed in the wee hours (when "seeing" was best) all those years back before I'm in a nursing home.

The wonder continues…

Lay in a course for Astro-Optical IV. Warp factor six Mr Sulu. Engage!

re: Review of Roving Mars

Jacob A Stam: "Cook should have stayed in Yorkshire out of harm's way, and the indigenous peoples of many hitherto unknown lands would have thanked him for it."

Indeed, it can all be a mixed blessing. But if Cook hadn't got there first, the French, Dutch, Portuguese or (worst of all) Spanish would have.

We shouldn't lump the ensuing cataclysm on Jimmy Cook. He barely saw an Aborigine, and was deeply respectful of the Polynesians. It was the slavers, miners, tyhpoid carriers, property developers and cattle barons that came in his wake who did the damage.

Jimmy, unlike like Christopher Columbus (née "Colon" aptly enough before he sold out his country to Spain), never turned to enslaving native populations to pay for his expeditions, for example.

Also, you've given Kepler a bum wrap.

He didn't get it "all so inadvertently but spectacularly right".

He just got it "spectacularly right".

He was a Pythagorean looking for cosmic harmony. And boy did he find a sizeable chunk of it up there or what?

A chunk big enough to fill in the missing bit for Isaac Newton - and so make everything from Sputnik to the Martian Rovers possible.

We all still must sweep out equal areas in equal times if we want to land something on another planet, after all.

Finally, in my own circles there is no higher compliment than to be called a "cynic". We are the backbone of democracy.

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C Parsons: "But if Cook hadn't got there first, the French, Dutch, Portuguese or (worst of all) Spanish would have."

Ye Gods, CP, how right you are to scold me for negating Cook's virtues and almost, by default, willing into existence a worst case alternative universe such as that. Perhaps, sometimes at least, all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

So too you're correct to pick me up on my lazy language in relation to Kepler's achievement, which was indeed monumental. What I was really wanting to convey (with the benefit of arrogant hindsight, of course) was the paradox of Kepler's snake-oil profession - astrologer - and the giddying heights to which his quest for the harmony of the spheres took him. The really poignant aspect is that he didn't - indeed couldn't - really fathom the true revolutionary nature of his solution to the unwieldy Ptolemaic cosmology, with its unseemly epicycles, etc.

So, yes, enter Newton. Ah, the grandeur! Maybe I'll try a last ditch attempt at CPR on my inner space cadet, if it's not already too late.

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C Parsons, Jacob A Stam, relating to Cook's Tahiti voyage to observe the transit of Venus in 1769 - NASA website:

Cook's expedition is often likened to a space mission. "The Endeavor was not only on a voyage of discovery," writes Tony Horwitz in the Cook travelogue Blue Latitudes, "it was also a laboratory for testing the latest theories and technologies, much as spaceships are today."

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Roy Cutts: "It's just not safe or responsible to carry our genes and thousands of years of endeavor in one basket."

G'day Roy, excuse me for venturing thus, but from a geological perspective your anxiety regarding our prospective species extinction seems somewhat irrational. A visceral, animal fear of extinction (i.e. death) is quite understandable, however in the great scheme of things, extinctions happen all the time. Indeed they follow a cosmic logic and harmony that we as self-aware newcomers have only recently begun to appreciate.

Of course, if the majority of my species-mates "think space research is worth genetic and cultural survival", then I'd have to consider maybe I'm out of step on this. However, it seems to me that many extinct species have had their own genetic and cultural features, and the universe hasn't fallen into a screaming heap for their passing.

Perhaps, after all, the little we knew of love may linger a few seasons in the wild pack that roams the final rubble of the cities. For a century or two the pack may lift its ears to a rockfall or sniff with lifted hair at a rain-worn garment that touches an old racial memory and sets tails to wagging expectantly. Some dim hand that they all feel but have never known will pass away imperceptibly. And when that influence is no longer felt nor remembered, then man will in truth be gone.

- Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours, Ch. 14

We Loved The Earth But Could Not Stay.

- Loren Eiseley, Epitaph

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Michael, the reflector sounds like a great idea. Getting into it with your youngsters seems a really cool way to keep the inner space cadet wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked, and keep the kids out of the clutches of the soaps too, if that's at all possible. Go for it, mate.

Roy, thanks for posting that about Cook's Tahiti expedition. I'll be sure to watch out for what sounds an interesting program.

I think the next best thing to being a space traveller (if that cranks one's gear) would be to be a seafarer on one of those scientific expeditions. Maybe even better, actually, with effectively only 2 dimensions to navigate, no space debris hurtling towards one at thousands of km per sec, and no being microwaved by the universe's background hum.

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Jacob A Stam: "....the paradox of Kepler's snake-oil profession - astrologer - and the giddying heights to which his quest for the harmony of the spheres took him..."

To be surpassed by that cantankerous alchemist and Master of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton.

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Oh dear Roy Cutts, you've got it! If anyone in this (or any other) universe is worth preserving it must be the Klingons (then again, anyone able to grow a worm farm on their heads – Andorians – must also have a claim, recycling you know).

Roy, have you read Jared Diamond's The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee? It is a marvellous treatise on the human kind – our beginnings, evolution, pretensions and foibles. (As are Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Civilisations Choose to Die.)

Diamond's view of both Carl Sagan's and Seth Shostak's idea that there are civilisations out there waiting on (as the Rolling Stones "on a friend") benevolent contact is bunkum. The contention being that on the only available evidence (our own), those civilisations have either destroyed themselves (should they have made it beyond where human kind are) or will destroy us as "Western" (or any other) civilisation has sought to do to every other civilisation encountered.

Not an "inner space cadet" type of view, but most likely true.

And Roy? The universe – I suspect – will do what the hell it wants. No matter who theorises what.

Gotta go get that Newtonian 'flector though. Can feel that cadet kicking… must be that Red Planet over to the nor'east.

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G'day Jacob, no excuses needed for venturing thus. Your opinions are absorbed and enjoyed.

I couldn't agree with you more on extinctions and cosmic harmony. One of my favourite books is The Life of The Cosmos by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/smolin.html
He takes evolution and extinction far beyond Darwin to include the whole physical Universe. He regards the mathematical constants of nature as genes and describes Galaxies in terms of ecology. Something like Lovelock and Gaia, but on a much grander scale.

The dinosaur reboot into birds was probably triggered by the Chicxulub incident. After a couple of hundred million years of failing to develop the intelligence and technology to save themselves they bloody well deserved it.

We've had a fraction of that time, and appear to be getting close technologically if not politically, to being able to preserve ourselves from Chicxulubs. Obviously, the other edge of the sword is that we could destroy ourselves instead.

I'm not panicking about immediate impacts but the warnings are there and as you've pointed out we are still a long way from technologies we dreamt of as space-obsessed kids.

My concern relating to the catastrophic extinction of h.sap, or whatever we naturally or artificially evolve into, is hubris not visceral fear.

If as you say, and I agree with you, there's a cosmic logic and harmony, it appears unnatural to me that we should not use our intelligence for survival and every other evolutionary and boldly going aspiration. What else would it be for?

Of course the Universe won't fall into a screaming heap without us, but if your tongue in cheek, dastardly cheap shot at SETI indicates that you think we are alone in the Universe, surely there's a strong case that we should be preserved, along with the Klingons of course.

The Universe will, on conventional wisdom however, die a slow cold death by entropy. That is unless you subscribe to Smolin's much more optimistic theory.

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The reflector, I think, is a top idea Jacob - for myself if not for the kids. Should they take to it (sky watching) so much the better. Something else along with trolling up flathead and trout (on holidays at Eucumbene) to keep 'em from the shit that passes for entertainment these days.

If there's one thing (oh, all-right, there's probably a few) I think on now it's why I waited 'till forty to have children. I mean, really, when Caitlin (or Joshua) may be ready to marry, I'll be working three jobs to pay off the wedding at the age of seventy! (Least I'll have a decent Shiraz to suck between missing teeth in the corner).

God, what am I still doing typing at this time? One too many reflective reds, too many threads (Harry; arguing ancient history positions on Alexander the Great on Pothos…) time for bed. Derby day …today!

No matter what else occurs in this world, you need the wonder. Look up at night and feel small… and wonder…

re: Review of Roving Mars

Roy, thanks for further discharging your thoughts and giving me and everyone else reading here cause for more of our own.

RC: "if your tongue in cheek, dastardly cheap shot at SETI indicates that you think we are alone in the Universe, surely there's a strong case that we should be preserved, along with the Klingons of course."

Let me first acknowledge your exception at my "dastardly cheap shot at SETI" - and by extension, at the esteemed Sagan. I'd thought twice about it, but in my folly and haste it unfortunately didn't get to the crucial third-pass. I guess that's in the nature of this blogging caper. Anyway it was thoroughly in keeping with the position I was building as embittered sceptic.

So anyway, by your above reasoning, if we're not "alone in the Universe", then it wouldn't particularly mattter if we were annihilated. But that's nonsense, of course, because what's crucial is our species-will (if there's such a thing) to prevail.

You identify that we're "getting close technologically if not politically, to being able to preserve ourselves". The key consideration here is that 'politically' we haven't advanced much further beyond base primate behaviour, for all our purported intellectual prowess, and in all likelihood that will be our undoing. I hope not in my remaining lifetime, but there ain't nothing special about me.

The Klingons are big and ugly enough to look after their own species-destiny, I'd conjecture.

RC: "The Universe will, on conventional wisdom, die a slow cold death by entropy."

The chances are infinitesimal, virtually and for all practical purposes nil, that any descendant of yours, mine or any organism on this planet could conceivably exist to witness that event. You may therefore, on this account, drop the hubris and not trouble yourself with giving it one further serious thought. So too, I bargs, with the relatively more 'imminent' demise of old Sol. (Disclaimer: I'm neither theoretical physicist nor shaman.)

I'm kind of familiar with Smolin's ideas, among others. Including Frank Tipler, the son of a preacher man, whose scholarly endeavours in theoretical physics yielded what, to his satisfaction at least, amounts to cosmic salvation:

This book is a description of the Omega Point Theory, which is a testable physical theory for an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo-Christian Heaven. Every single term in the theory - for example, "omnipresent", "omniscient", "omnipotent", "resurrection (spiritual) body", Heaven - will be introduced as pure physical concepts. In this book I shall make no appeal, anywhere, to revelation. I shall appeal instead to the solid results of modern physical science; the only appeal will be to the reader's reason. I shall describe the physical mechanism of the universal resurrection. I shall show exactly how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live. I shall show exactly why this power to resurrect which modern physics allows will actually exist in the far future, and why it will in fact be used. If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: "Be comforted, you and they shall live again."

Frank J Tipler, The Physics of Immortality, Ch 1, p. 1.

Well, it's a 'testable physical theory' if you could manage to be around long enough up to the Omega Point - the point at which, if I understand this correctly, entropy advances to the instant before the universe 'as we know it' ceases to exist. But I've already dealt rather severely with that contingency.

C Parsons: "To be surpassed by that cantankerous alchemist and Master of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton."

Indeed, CP, Sir Zak was quite a piece of work, wasn't he? And in their own ways they all were, those cosmic revolutionaries. The timid plodder Copernicus, "mangy dog" Kepler, expansive doomed Bruno, spleen-ridden Galileo. Oh, aye. The grandeur.

Michael: "... why I waited 'till forty to have children ..."

The impetus would have been the curtain on the dark days of Keating-Labor, heralding the promise of a Howard-Liberal golden age, and attendant relaxed-and-comfortable conditions for self-replication. Could that be it, Michael? Your biological clock miscalculated though, too early for those baby bonuses. By the way, you've got me reflecting on reflectors too!

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Michael Park, I've read Guns and Steel, but not the Third Chimp - I'll put it on the list.

If you're new to astronomy, do some research before you go for the 8" reflector. I won't take up space (pun intended) here but there's plenty of information on the web.

I have a pair of very large binoculars mounted on a joy stick controlled rotatable version of a dentist's chair. SWMBO calls it Starship Indulgence.

Unfortunately I suspect you're right about the Fermi Paradox. The null result from SETI indicates ETI that haven't destroyed themselves must be a bit thin on the ground. Our technology hasn't looked far or sensitively enough yet but what's most discouraging is that not one of the millions of potential advanced ETI have contacted us. Still hoping for abduction though - cancel that - just remembered the anal probe.

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Malcolm Street: Please, please do you have an update on anti-gravity?

re: Review of Roving Mars

Welcome the thoughts Roy.

Always wanted that reflector when I was young but such instruments were substantially more expensive back then (bit like the relative price of a colour TV c1975 compared to now).

I've used binoculars but see the advantage in the light gathering of what CP would call a "cantankerous alchemist and Master of the Mint" Newtonian reflector. Particularly 8" (funny how once an amateur astronomer always one: centimetres just don't cut it...200mm? Never). Should I get the digital SLR worked out, it will be much the better instrument for photography.

Hang on; I was doing this for the kids wasn't I?

Once I work out a space (pun intended) for it I'll start working on Santa - or some other construct that the wife will accept.

Love the sound of that "Starship Indulgence"! What would that make mine?

Jacob, go for it. Maybe we could compare views/photos? Mind you I've still to get this past the ex-chequer.

As to being "relaxed and comfortable, I doubt very much that induced the biological clock to go into overdrive! I really wonder just what my two will think of what we have allowed happen on our watch when they look back.

By then, postulating the existence of ETI which may be more advanced than our good selves may be considered grounds for preventative detention under the definition of sedition:

In this section:
seditious intention, means an intention to effect any of the following purposes:

(a) to bring the Sovereign into hatred or contempt;

(b) to urge disaffection against the following:

(i) the Constitution;
(ii) the Government of the Commonwealth;
(iii) either House of the Parliament;

(c) to urge another person to attempt, otherwise than by lawful
means, to procure a change to any matter established by law
in the Commonwealth;

(d) to promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between different
groups so as to threaten the peace, order and good
government of the Commonwealth

(e) To bring the human species into contempt by any means with respect to any Extra Terrestrial Intelligence which may exist now or at any time in the future.

Perhaps the Attorney General may have, by then, listed ETI as a "proscribed group"? That would indeed make SETI scientists terrorists and Seth "bin-Shostak" the bin-Laden of science.

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Beam me up Scotty........there are no intelligent lifeforms down here!!!

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Fair comment, Kim. So can you help us out here?

Michael: "I really wonder just what my two will think of what we have allowed happen on our watch..." You can only do what you can do, and I reckon your two may conclude you did okay.

So while Kim's preparing to dazzle us, I've been reflecting on what happened to my inner space cadet, which has sent me into a fugue where the following song waxes in me head:

Alan Parsons Project - Day After Day

Album: I, Robot (1977)

Lead vocal: Jack Harris

Gaze at the sky
And picture a memory
Of days in your life
You knew what it meant to be happy and free
With time on your side

Remember your daddy
When no one was wiser
Your ma used to say
That you would go further than he ever could
With time on your side

Think of a boy with the stars in his eye
Longing to reach them but frightened to try
Sadly, you'd say, someday, someday

But day after day
The show must go on
And time slipped away
Before you could build any castles in spain
The chance had gone by

With nothing to say
And no one to say it to
Nothing has changed
You've still got it all to do
Surely you know
The chance has gone by

Think of a boy with the stars in his eye
Longing to reach them but frightened to try
Sadly, you'd say, someday, someday

But, day after day
The show must go on
And you gaze at the sky
And picture a memory of days in your life
With time on your side

With time on your side
(day after day the show must go on)
With time on your side
(day after day the show must go on)

re: Review of Roving Mars

Jacob, I've been reflecting too.

Considering the SETI null result and the fact that there hasn't even been an alien Coke bottle washed up on our shore, one conclusion is that ETI has become extinct by stupidity, neglect or catastrophe. (BTW I'm not in the least giving up on other possibilities or handing in my space cadet badge).

Maybe looking for evidence of dead aliens rather than live ones will be more immediately productive. After all, much of our fundamental science, art and philosophy comes from dead people, artifacts and fossils. What a treasure trove that is.

Mars is certainly a sensible bet starting point, particularly for fossils.

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Well Jacob, I've returned from my full-on, un-deconstructed odessey to "t'other side". And in one piece. Whew! For a minute there it began resembling Gaugemela 331 BCE! At least the other played the part of Darius III.

Have you reconstituted the "cadet"? I just took a look over the JPL site and read through the history of the Rover's parents: Viking.

Near on thirty years ago! I remember waiting on the results…any results. No internet then one relied on the newspapers or hoped the tv news would see enough interest in it to show it.

And what of the intrepid deep space Lewis and Clark, Voyager one and two? Twenty eight years and yet to to be forced into cannibalism!

As for the Alan Parson's project (your eclectic taste is showing – you may be deemed elitist):

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind….

Eye in The Sky

And for George Bush…

There's a sign in the desert that lies to the west
Where you can't tell the night from the sunrise
And not all's the king's horse and all the king's men
Have prevented the fall of the unwise…

…who should always remember when dealing with that fellow Fitzgerald…

But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card.

The Turn of a Friendly Card

re: Review of Roving Mars

Roy, fair enough. Mars is the most obvious and convenient place to start looking, if that space rock that dropped in Antarctica really was from Mars and bore traces of organic compounds.

I guess I have to agree, despite my doubts about it, that SETI shouldn't be quite written off yet. Helluva lotta space to cover, and perhaps further technological advances may refine the methods. What's the state of play as regards funding/resources brought to bear, do you know offhand? Has several decades of 'nul result' dampened things all that much?

By the way, although I’m not actually anti-gravity myself, I have no problem with those that are. But I absolutely draw the line at anti-matter. I’m all for expression of dissent but that’s the limit. (Sorry, can't help myself at this hour.)

Michael, yeah saw that on t'other side, but had no concerns for your returning intact. I half expected to see the epithet 'Kennedy-lover' hurled your way, but maybe that's just a bit old hat now. And wow! - "the indictments have nothing to do with the so called spy outing" - a 'deep cover' operative and her network (perhaps fatally) compromised, but the indictment is a 'left' vendetta. I shakes me head. But I digress...

Recall that, before Voyager, the Pioneer 10 and 11 deepspace probes had as part of their payload a phonograph record of the 'Sounds of Earth' (the web page allows access to the actual audio used). One ponders whether the disc will ever be given a spin outside of this solar system, and if so by whom and when.

And will the listeners wonder at 'our' eclectic taste. I note that Beethoven, Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson are represented, but not the Beatles or Alan Parsons. But good to see Bach's Brandenburg #2 as a worthy inclusion - that's the coolest track on the thing imho.

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Jacob, What did the late Carl Sagan say?

'There are more stars in the Cosmos than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth.'

Odds are that other systems have the suitable conditions for life to develop .. and as Eric Idle sang:

"There better be intelligent life out there because there's precious little of it down here on Earth."

Remember that we inhabit a small planet in a minor system on the outer edge of a spiral in the Milky Way galaxy .. (as someone said) ... The nearest star is about 4.3 light years away - that is usually referred to as Alpha Centauri, though it is a triple system and its smallest member - Proxima Centauri - gets closest. The two bigger members are one of my favourite celestial sights - two golden orbs, side by side, one about 30% or so smaller than the other.

There are a seemingly endless array of wonders to be seen up there.

As to the music, well I have no argument, a good representation. The omissions you mention, the Beatles, well maybe, though why have the children when you can have the parents? So Chuck, yes and way back .. Blind Willie Johnson. Ever heard "Dark Was the Night"? Seminal.

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Yes, Bob, that's the optimistic case as advanced notably by our esteemed Sagan. (Apparently he never did say "beellions and beellions".) There's also the pessimistic case, of course. Then there's Murphy's Law - "if anything can happen, it will" - which I see as the most appealing support for an affirmative position.

I was just thinking before what our 'intelligent design' brethren might say about the question of our uniqueness or otherwise. I'm guessing the general consensus would be that the evidence isn't in yet. But then maybe the underlying agenda is more terrestrial than anything else.

Yes, I do recall peering in awe at that Alpha Centauri pair through my old refractor long, long ago in a town far, far away. And the nebulosity in the Pleiades is truly breathtaking. Since the demise of my old 'scope (long story) I was always meaning to upgrade to a decent Newtonian device. Soon perhaps.

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I'd' have gone instead though Jacob! Unsure though whether NASA would've allowed a precocious twelve year old to take those first steps.

What would I have said? Probably sonething along the lines of "What a ball tearer!"

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I could've told Neil not to go: "First man on the moon Neil Armstrong believes his fame is undeserved and regrets the toll that celebrity took on his family and friends" - see Neil Armstrong rejects moonwalk fame.

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I strongly doubt that Neil would have taken the sage advice of a (however precocious or not) 12yo seriously, anyway, Michael. Actually the 12yo I speak of was staring wide-eyed, if not bloody manically, at the ghostly images beamed to that school TV set on that day in July '69, and couldn't have dreamed of being so presumptuous. Probably I'd have gone too, without a second thought. Funny, eh?

re: Review of Roving Mars

Yes, I clearly remember sitting in the school hall of CBHS Lewisham absolutely entranced. And not a little pissed-off with goose behind waffling on about what you're supposed to do with your gonads.

As if he knew? What can you say - all boys school.

Those images are firmly implanted within the old scone. Bit like the RFK ones I was discussing with "t'other side."

Recent events involving JP and Westmead NCH have, I think, decided me. Santa's just got to work out a way to get an 8" reflector down the chimney of a house that doesn't have one. Do you think if I e-mailed him he'd come via the air-conditioning?

Decided to to do the pack the boat and tent and possibly head to Burrijuck (near Yass) with the lad (and his sister and - if she's nice - their mum).

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