Hype and Hyperbole
on the Far Side
All the hype
and hyperbole surrounding the Curiosity rover landing on Mars is
really quite humorous. Terms like "biggest", "best",
"most ambitious", and "powerful" have been landing
with thuds as resounding as the rover itself. Frankly, it all calls
for a little reality check, which we love to do around here.
First of all,
Curiosity is a little over 40 years too late to claim all the big
titles. In 1970 and 1973, the Soviet Union landed two rovers, called
Lunokhod 1 and 2, on the Moon. They were about the same size and
weight, and had more or less the same toys as Curiosity (including
laser and radiation detector).
By the way,
Lunokhod means "moon walker", so even Michael Jackson
got beat on that one.
rovers lasted a bit over a year and traveled 10 miles or so. They
dug up rocks and took pictures, just like Curiosity presumably will
do. If you count the fact that various groups still bounce lasers
off of these rovers to measure the precise distance to the Moon,
then they've been working for well over 40 years.
how about most ambitious? Well, let's start with what Curiosity
can do. It can take photos, drill rocks and sample dirt. It's stated
goal is to find the "building blocks of life." Can we
find anything more ambitious than that?
completely forget the Apollo Moon landings, since the Curiosity
media team seem to have done so. Instead, let's limit ourselves
to just robotic missions. And if we measure ambition by the science
goals, then the idea of looking for real, extant life on another
world would trump rocks, I think. So, if we measure ambition by
the potential impact of the data gained, then searching for actual
life, and not "building blocks" would be far more ambitious.
For pure ambition,
by this measure, the award goes to the two Viking landers in 1976.
These pretty large landers had full biology labs on-board and were
tasked with actually FINDING extant life. And by all accounts, they
did! In fact, the chief investigator for one of the experiments,
Gil Levin, has been fighting for 36 years to get someone...anyone...to
notice the fact.
every mission to Mars since Viking has done nothing more than take
vacation snapshots and sniff rocks looking for "ingredients"
and "building blocks". Even if one argues that the Viking
data was ambiguous or chemically induced, doesn't the possibility
of finding extant life warrant another try?
example of great ambitions? How about the Soviet Venera landers?
Again in 1970, the Soviets landed the first machine on another planet.
On top of that, they had to survive near-Earth gravity, an acid
cloud layer, atmospheric pressure more than 90x Earth normal, and
surface temperatures around 860F. The first one, Venera 7, not only
did all that, but sent back data for four months.
ambitious, given the state of the technology back then and the fact
that no one else had ever landed It's a craft on another planet.
So, where does
that leave all the hype and hyperbole surrounding the Curiosity
rover? It's certainly not the most ambitious mission. It doesn't
address any questions that haven't already been amply investigated
by multiple orbiters and landers. It's not the first, but maybe
the biggest, but only by a few kilograms. In fact, about the only
big deals with this mission are the landing itself and the HD cameras.
was remarkable for the Rube Goldberg series of events dubbed the
"Seven Minutes of Terror". It is unique for all the crap
it left lying within a half-mile radius of the rover, including
two tungsten weights, a heat shield, a massive parachute attached
with a lot of string to a backshell, and a rocket backpack with
three long cabes that chewed up a lot of real estate during it's
brief time on stage. The landing was also notable for being pretty
darned close to the idea spot.
As for the
nifty HD cameras, well they're controlled by a guy names Mike Malin
of Malin Space Science Systems. This guy has well over a decade's
worth of history NOT showing the full-resolution pix to the folks
who paid for them. On the few occasions he's been badgered into
letting loose of a few, he's gone out of his way to screw them up
and fuzz out anything of interest. In other words, you won't catch
me holding my breath waiting for the dazzlling hi-rez photos from
all this leave us, once you strip away all the hype and hyperbole?
The rover management
team keeps talking about looking for water. Well, for God's sake
boys, let me help you. There are two polar caps chock full of water.
The Vikings sent back photos of snow. There are thousands of pictures
of water clouds. The Phoenix lander dug up ice. There are water
seeps all over the place. And if you believe your eyes, there's
even great pictures of lakes and ponds.
They tell us
they are searching for the "building blocks" of life.
Well, let me help you again. The Vikings found microbes in the soil.
Some of those lakes and ponds have what look like algae that grow
and die with the seasons. There are entire forests of giant tree-like
things near the south pole. And gosh, what about all those pyramids,
domes, buildings, and giant sculptures?
In the end,
we are still where we were in 1976, only several billion dollars
poorer. Sure, we've got lots of pretty pictures, but we don't get
the really good quality ones. Those are for the personal collection
of Mike Malin. Sure, we've got scads of data from sniffing rocks,
but that only excites the geekiest geology buffs. Basically, what
we've got is another multi-billion dollar ad campaign for rocks
and vacation slide shows.
After 36 years
and billions of bux, don't we deserve a little more than seven minutes
August 11, 2012
Grover [send him mail] is
a freelance writer/producer/director living in Jakarta, Indonesia.
His work has appeared in film, broadcast and major publications
on- and off-line. Bernard publishes the Life
on the Far Side blog and produces Radio
© 2012 Life
on the Far Side