NPF: YOU CALL THAT A KNIFE?

You know how I love stuff about space and the internet has been ablaze with information about the Mars Curiosity Rover, a component of the Mars Science Laboratory, for the past few weeks. The comparatively large amount of publicity it has received indicates that NASA, in its sixth decade, might be figuring out Public Relations: target young people (but not children) who might be interested in, like, books and science and stuff while basically ignoring the "Hurr! Everything that costs money is bad!" crowd that cannot be pleased under any circumstances. The wildly popular landing video is brilliant marketing but merely a function of the technology being available today; had a video of a space probe landing been possible thirty years ago, it would have looked like that. In other words, the mission itself wasn't really groundbreaking. Logically, it outdid previous similar missions in technology – better cameras, more and more complex experiments, more data returned more quickly, and so on. On the surface (see what I did there?) it's not exactly the kind of mission you'd expect to grab the public's attention. It's just another thing the internet has made far more accessible.

Oh, and there was a guy with a mohawk, a probable candidate to be the first Hipster D-Bag in space. Not a dry panty in the house when he's at mission control, amirite?

As much as planetary exploration interests and excites me, I have to be the cranky old bastard for just a second and point out that NASA landed rovers on Mars that returned images and experimental data – Viking 1 and 2in 1976. And one of them continued to work on the surface and collect data for six years. It's not a pissing contest, as every mission allows new research and new insights based on the limits of technology available at the time, yet I can't help feeling that sending an orbiter to Mars and landing a rover is old hat to the folks at NASA by now. To think that they managed the same using the computer, communications, and telemetry technology of the late 1960s is a lot more impressive, for whatever that's worth.

It's great that people are interested in the space program and I'm sure the entire MSL program was challenging and time consuming for everyone involved. It must have felt great to see it succeed. But now that NASA is cool (at least momentarily) I imagine there are a bunch of old guys who were there in the Seventies looking at Mohawk Guy and thinking "Yeah, we put a probe on Mars when you were in diapers, kid. It was made of transistors, a Pong circuit board, and two cameras we bought at a pawn shop in El Segundo after we did mushrooms at Buzz Aldrin's condo."

And don't even get me started on Voyager 2, sonny. We stole half those parts from Radio Shack and that can of bolts is still working 35 years (!) and nine billion miles (!!!) later. And we didn't have the youtubes and the crazy haircuts and the memes and all that baloney. Now get off my lawn and get a nice military haircut.

28 thoughts on “NPF: YOU CALL THAT A KNIFE?”

  • Mohawk Guy only had that mohawk for the mission; he always does a different haircut for launches. And actually, he's a pretty cool guy. He was on NPR a week after the launch and while he doesn't necessarily fit all the stereotypes, he's definitely an engineer.

  • The Viking probes (and Soviet Venera landers on Venus) were not rovers. They just landed and sat in one place. Curiosity is almost twice as big, carries a lot more instruments (including frickin' lasers!), and it can drive around!

    If you think getting to Mars is easy… lost Mars probes include the Mars Observer (1993), Mars Climate Orbiter (1999), Mars Polar Lander (1999), and Beagle 2 (2003). And some of them just needed to orbit, not land. As Han Solo might have said, this ain't like dusting crops.

    As you say, this isn't a pissing contest, and the achievements of NASA in the 60s and 70s were truly awesome. But I think even the NASA old timers would have a certain respect for Curiosity.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    If we can't, or won't, send humans to walk on Mars, rovers are the best substitute.

    But yeah, it's a bit of a disappointment when, 43 years after we sent men to the Moon, using computers that were little more than abacuses linked together with Dixie Cups and strings, we have to settle for putting an advanced version of a kid's remote control toy car equipted with a chemistry set, on Mars.

    But today, like every little step we as a country take forward instead of backward, we have to remind ourselves, "Hey, it's better than nothing."

    'One small step for "Curiosity," one giant cloud of data for mankind.'

    Today, the soaring, aspiring, poetry of the human spirit is gone. So are the "leap's."

    Now, we settle for competent, if mechanical, prose. And baby steps by remote-control robots.

  • I'm terribly confused by both the post and the response. It's as if what Curiosity is doing is old hat. Here are the science instruments:

    http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/instruments/

    And an analysis of the mission:
    http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Curiositys_Search_for_Organics_999.html

    In addition, this puppy is going to be there for a long time. It's not going to go to sleep during the winter. According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Science_Laboratory) it's intended to last at least four years. But if JPL's engineering history is any indicator it will likely last as long as the nuclear power source.

    Even if it was just a complete duplicate of Opportunity, it's landing in a completely different spot. We have an on the ground understanding analogous to having a sample set of what? Six missions? That's like understanding the USA by checking six blocks in Manhattan.

    We're in the middle of the best science in the history of man and you guys are grousing that a new rover is BORING?

  • Ed,

    The new subtitle on the website is a major downgrade. If I wanted wit like that I would talk to myself (see above).

    Long live 'the opiate of the asses'.

  • @ c u n d gulag: The challenge of getting humans to Mars isn't computational. The navigation was done comfortably with 1970s computing power.

    The problem is biological. A round trip to the moon takes a week; Mars takes two years, minimum. How do you keep human beings alive and functional in a totally hostile environment, for that length of time, when supplies from Earth are up to a year away?

    It's a really hard problem and advances in computing technology aren't much use for solving it — but they can bypass it by letting you send bigger and better robots.

    Sure, part of the story is that we don't have the same enthusiasm for beating the Russians glorious projects as we once did. But we shouldn't overlook the fact that getting to Mars and back is much, much harder than the Moon.

  • Somewhat less than two years with NERVA. In return for accepting a radio active exhaust plume in orbit, the human crew spend much less time exposed to cosmic rays.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Talisker,
    Yeah, I know, or can imagine, how difficult it would be, to get people to Mars, AND back safely.

    A few years in space is not anything the human body was "designed" for – ok, evolved for.

    I'm fine with that we're exploring space using probes and robotic devices. What would concern me more, is if we stopped.

    The real shame is the cutting of NASA's budgets over the years.

    But, I guess we need rich people's money to reach escape velocity, on the journey to Switzerland, the Bahama's, or the Cayman's, than we money to find out where we fit in, in this solar system, galaxy, and universe.

    I mean, what's the point of that?
    We know all we need to know.
    6,000 years ago, God plunked us down here, gave us things to eat and drink, dinosaurs to ride, and a planet to use as a combo of farm, fuel-pit, and garbage dump.
    Why do we need to know anything, other than when Jesus comes, the faithful will be zipped-up into Heaven?
    So, why explore the heaven's?

  • Ed, Ed, relax. Progress is known to come in fits and starts. And calling that cute engineer boy a d-bag just makes me think you need to have a g & t and start the weekend early. (Who has classes on Friday afternoon anyway?)

  • c u n d gulag: Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see human beings on Mars. The engineering challenge is difficult but not impossible, and it would be a much better use of our resources than wars and financial speculation. If I were Emperor of the USA, much of the Pentagon's budget would be diverted to NASA forthwith.

    My point is that, although it would be really cool, sending canned monkeys to Mars (h/t Charles Stross) is not necessarily the most efficient way of doing science there.

  • @Totoro: That's only a problem if you start off carrying all your fuel for the round trip. What you need is a fuel dump on or near Mars.

    Rocket fuel = hydrogen + oxygen = water, and there's likely to be water ice on Mars. Or if you're really ambitious you could steer a water-ice asteroid into Martian orbit and mine it. (In principle you could accomplish this part using robots.) Not easy by any means, but probably still easier than the canned-monkey problem.

    If you can refuel on Mars then the return journey actually requires less fuel than going out, because Martian gravity is so much weaker.

  • if the US & world economy were booming, then we could afford to waste money probing mars. however we are far closer to nuclear war with russia than almost anyone realizes. the media won't touch this verbotten subject. neither will 99% of progressive websites including rortybomb. there is almost no talk either about global warming, that if we are really, really lucky & escape nuclear destruction, will ruin the planet.

  • @Talisker
    Water is not rocket fuel, water is reaction mass. You've got to get the energy while on Mars. How are you going to convert the water back into H+O on Mars? Solar? You're farther from the sun, so power density is lower. You would need football fields of solar panels running for years to get enough energy to electrolyze water into H+O. Just having enough power to keep yourself from freezing is non-trivial. Spirit and Opportunity were dormant during the long Martian winters. Curiosity has seen high temps of +28 F and lows of below -100 F. That's why Curiosity uses a plutonium RTG for power. Spend enough time on Mars and anything is possible, but that is called colonization, not exploration. Not saying it can't be done, but all this talk about water as the solution to the fuel problem is misleading at best.

  • You're missing the point. The amount of science that this probe can do is
    many orders of magnitude larger. Digital comms and a chemical spectrometer add huge capabilities that older probes did not have, plus the new system for landing demonstrates a reliable system for delivering heavy(eg manned) payloads to mars: a major engineering hurdle that was unvaulted until now.

    It is great that their pr has improved but largely beside the point, IMO.

  • Since those "old guys" are engineers who actually understand the scope the technical achievement represented by the Mars Science Lab, I'm guessing, no, they're not saying that.

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