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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.