The best and the worst of us
About 8 years ago….
Hi Hank, what do you want?
Hi Boss. We have this idea for a scientific research vehicle. It will be stuffed full of experiments, be the size of a car and weigh 900 kilos.
Ambitious! Where do you want to put it? In the desert down the road?
Err no; Mars.
What? Three hundred million kilometres away Mars? 253 travel days away Mars? Variable climate, shithole Mars?
That’s the one.
Well, assuming you managed to get this vehicle to the Martian atmosphere, you will need to pitch it at just the right angle so it doesn’t burn up on entry; and you will need a sodding great heat shield.
Yep, thought of that. Going to be the biggest shield ever.
So then you will have a 900 kg car that has slowed from 13,000 mph during entry, but is still doing 1,000 mph and hurtling towards the surface of the planet. Have you thought about that?
Yep, thought about that. Just deploy a huge parachute; bingo! 9G deceleration.
A parachute? Yeah, right. And if the 9Gs damage the vehicle?
And if the parachute fails?
OK, Well, assuming it survives all that, it is still doing 200 mph; now what?
Easy. Jettison the heat shield and fire up some rockets to slow it down.
Hahahaha. Oh, you’re serious. How many rockets?
And if one of them fails?
OK, so you’ve slowed it down, how do you get the vehicle onto the surface?
Lower it on ropes.
You’re shitting me!
No. Lower it on ropes, then once it lands on the surface, cut the ropes and fly the holding craft away with the rockets.
Oh, fuck off!
No, that’s the plan. And I haven’t been drinking much.
You are going to need some smart guys to guide it down to the surface then.
Err, there is a fourteen minute communication delay between earth and Mars, and there are only seven minutes between the craft hitting the atmosphere and landing. It is is going to have to manage all this on its own.
And if the half million lines of computer code you will have to write has a bug….? Wait, don’t tell me, we’re fucked?
Jesus. Well, I assume you are planning to do this in a very large open area; to allow for the massive changes in wind speed and direction that can occur on Mars.
Not really. We’re going to stick it in a crater close to a 6 kilometre high cliff.
Get out of my office.
But that is exactly what NASA attempted with the Curiosity mission, and if you haven’t seen the explanatory video, it’s worth a watch:
Eight years of work, $2.5 billion dollars, and it all came down to seven minutes in the Martian atmosphere this lunchtime which nobody could do anything to influence once it had started. Success, and at least two years of scientific discovery lay ahead. Failure, possible in so many different ways, end of mission, a waste of eight years of effort, and probably a prompt withdrawal of future funding. Stress levels must have been sky-high.
I was in Bangkok today, so was sat in a restaurant reading a live update on my phone. I will admit to an emotional moment when the news came through that Curiosity was safely down and had transmitted a little picture from the surface to prove it. Almost as amazing as the NASA achievement was the fact that The Son had dragged himself out of bed in the UK at some ungodly hour to follow the landing, and we exchanged a couple of “wow!” SMSs.
An admirable, and brave, technical achievement; which now means that we can learn so much more about our neighbour. And there will be loads of great photos too. Well done NASA, you almost made me proud to be a human today.
Perhaps my pride would have been greater if I hadn’t chanced upon this a couple of days ago and become even more depressed with the state of the world than I normally am:
This is a child of our species, who had the misfortune to be born in Fallujah, Iraq; where there have been massive increases in birth defects (currently one birth in every five), attributable to the use of enriched uranium weapons and white phosphorus in the city in 2004. It’s a frightful, sad image, but it is nothing compared to others that sit on-line as a testament to how vile and uncaring we can be to each other.
There are many excellent, if tragic, documentaries (for example) and a wealth of statistics; and yet, perhaps not surprisingly, it is not being trumpeted by the mainstream media as something we should be caring about.
Our species is a disaster. Capable of the most appalling acts of evil and yet also capable of great endeavours.
Christopher Hitchins said: “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”
Too true, we humans are the messy products of evolution; incomplete, often ignoble creatures.
So congratulations to NASA, but my thoughts are also with the parents of Fallujah, who struggle daily with the death or care of a disfigured child, and are too scared to have more offspring. They are probably less excited by Curiosity than I am.
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