Thursday, January 22

A Dream of Mars

In 2008, thousands of people fell in love with a robot, far from its home, out in the cold of space. No, not Wall-E: the Mars Explorer, nicknamed “Phoenix.” Aside from its obvious purposes of space exploration and study, the Mars Explorer was also a new step for NASA when it became one of the most followed accounts on Twitter. In early November, the Explorer ceased communicating with Earth, but not before creating a massive following, and capturing the hearts of thousands. Some of the last few Tweets from the Explorer(written by Veronica McGregor of Jet Propulsion Laboratory) were very poignant:

I should stay well-preserved in this cold. I'll be humankind's monument here for centuries, eons, until future explorers come for me ;-) 1:57 AM Oct 30th, 2008 from web

Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. I’ll be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW! 12:55 PM Oct 30th, 2008 from web

Many of the Explorer’s followers on Twitter expressed amazement that they were getting so emotional over a robot, especially when everyone knew the messages were coming from JPL, not the surface of Mars. Why get worked up over a machine that was slowly shutting down?

It wasn’t the machine itself that we loved: the metals, the mechanisms, the scientific equipment. It was the human spirit that had sent it there, so many miles from our home, not for profit or war or necessity, but simply because there was a chance to discover something we’d never known before. So many people had dreamed, had planned, had worked to put that bit of metal on that frozen surface, and the light of the human spirit shone as bright as any star. The freezing chill of Martian winter may have caused the machine to shut down, but the spirit it embodies is still there, as strong as ever, burning bright with curiosity, determination, and optimism.

Last night I visited Jet Propulsions Lab, and got to meet many of the people behind the Mars missions; many of them were kind enough to sign my copy of The Martian Chronicles. And it hit me. The dream still lives on. Would we be so excited to discover Martian ice if we had never read about Martian canals full of wine? Would we have been so excited to see the cold red dust of the surface if we had not walked the streets of its cities with Dejah Thoris and John Carter? The dream isn’t about finding aliens, or seeing ancient Martian cities, or any of the specifics from the books and stories. The dream is the Red Planet itself, that bright shining dot in the night sky, the cold barren world of shifting sands and sublimating ice. The dream doesn’t die with the discovery of fact; the dream is the power behind that discovery.

Ray Bradbury, that dreamer of Mars, said “We're always asking, ‘What are we doing here on earth?’ We are the audience. There's no use having a universe, a cosmology, if you don't have witnesses. We are the witnesses to the miracle. We are put here by creation, by God, by the cosmos, whatever name you want to give it. We're here to be the audience to the magnificent. It is our job to celebrate.”

We have sent machines hurtling through millions of miles of space to discover the face of Mars. We have seen the red earth. We have touched the ice below the surface. We are the audience to the magnificent, and we will celebrate.


Jesse Luna said...

Great post! I had the pleasure of attending the JPL Tweetup as well. You can tell that the spirit of adventure and of humanity were in that room. All the Mars Phoenix fans and the great JPL team were wonderful.

Thanks for mentioning those final tweets from @MarsPhoenix. I heard that more than a few people shed a tear when @MarsPhoenix powered down,... for now. - @jesseluna on Twitter

Ann Willmott said...

Nice piece of writing, thank you. I asked two of the Mars Rover team if they would be a little heartbroken when one or both of the Rovers go down. They both said, separately but almost verbatim, "a little heartbroken is not even close" and went on to say these were their children, and their lives will be completely changed and even devastated on that day; but what they will remember is how proud they are of all the work those robots have done, so far beyond expectation.

marianas said...

I was one of the people who cried when the Phoenix powered down.

That was a lovely piece of writing and the tweetup sounds like an amazing experience. I wish I could have gone!

Space exploration FTW indeed.

Anonymous said...

Joi, thank you for putting into words the thoughts of a lot of us outsiders feel regarding NASA and its creations. They truly have worked miracles with much opposition from Luddite politicians.

I'd also like to say thank you to the folks at JPL for holding this event, and putting it up live on the web. It was nice to see some of the folks we only know by their monikers, and hear their excitement and devotion to go as far as possible with their craft. The sheer complexity at what they accomplish is daunting, and yet they all make it look so very simple. I do hope to see more of these, not only from JPL but also from the other groups within NASA. I'm sure it can only have a favourable reception world-wide.

My interest was peaked listening to the BBC Radio, and being allowed to stay up late on Sunday evenings past my 7:30 bedtime to listen to a science fiction broadcast about space explorers as a kid in the early 50's. Coupled with books I devoured of Clark, Asimov, Bradbury, and countless others in the realistic science-type novels I just knew by this time we'd have human habitation in space. I only wish it were on the level of my dreams, as I would be heading for an O'Neil Colony at a Lagrange point to retire.

Again, my sincere thanks to all.