As most of you know, NASA landed their most advanced rover yet on Mars. However, many Americans were not aware that this was about to happen, or why they should care that we (the taxpayers) just spent $2.6 billion on a nuclear vehicle with a top speed of 5mph. That none of us will ever get to drive. What is the point of this vehicle, and why should we be glad to have spent that money? Most importantly, how will it make our lives more awesome? Because really, when it comes down to it, what’s the point of any vehicle if it doesn’t make life more awesome in some way? I won’t attempt to explain that here, you can read up on the mission and decide for yourself if we really need to know-
When I asked Elon Musk last year “Why stop at Mars? There’s a whole universe out there!” He replied with the explanation that we could use some more space. Some people (like me) are horrified by the current rate of human population growth, and sometimes frame the problems in terms of “how many planets” as in- If all 7 billion of us were living like Americans, how much of the Earth’s currently available resources would we need to survive? A common answer is 2.5 planets worth. OK, so Mars is another planet, and a bigger one. But terraforming it won’t be easy.
Because NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL to locals) is based in Pasadena, CA, the city was abuzz with Martian festivities this weekend. The main event was the Planetary Society’s Planetfest 2012, which included a fabulous party co-hosted by Black Starr. Guests roamed the cordoned-off courtyard of a mall, many of us dressed in our finest intergalactic frippery, much to the amusement of the locals. The party was a smashing success not just because Elon Musk and Bill Nye, among many other industry luminaries, were on hand to say a few words to the enthusiastic crowd.
The real success was in one conversation I had with a local businessman on Saturday night. He had no idea Curiosity was about to land, or even that it had been sent. I suppose NASA might want to keep quiet about missions until they’re a success, but still, here’s someone who lives and works a stone’s throw from the JPL Mission Control room, and had no idea. With a “batting average” of .722, taxpayers might not want to hear about the ones that fail. 13 of 18 US missions to Mars have been successful, 15 of 24 for the entire planet (which requires we play this song). But as any other vehicle manufacturer will tell you, true success only comes after learning from past failures. So a lot of the exuberance you witnessed in the JPL Control Room was relief that they’d all still have jobs today.
The rover Curiosity is not just bigger and badder than the previous two we’ve sent, it also utilized a revolutionary new landing method. One speaker at Saturday night’s party hinted that it was inspired by an old technique soldiers used to do. He explained that when parachuting, the dog’s chute would be deployed first, then the human’s chute. It was one of those parties too amazing to really describe. You just had to be there. I’ll let Wired tell you all about it. The sad moment for me was Elon Musk asking how many of us wanted to move to Mars, to buy one-way tickets on SpaceX. Plenty of people cheered, but I don’t fancy living in caves hiding from unfiltered sunlight, thanks. Nice place to visit, but…
On Sunday night, while the really cool kids were in the JPL Control Room, the rest of us found ways to watch it together. Some gathered in Times Square, some watched at home. Here in Los Angeles, we have a monthly event called Mindshare. I explain it to people as “a place where all the smart people in LA go to have fun.” They call it “Enlightened Debauchery.” In January, Mindshare had a space-themed event, and Adam Steltzner / Chief Engineer, EDL, Mars Exploration Rovers mission told us about Curiosity. So we knew there would be a Mindshare viewing party.
At the viewing party on Sunday night, we were joined by JPL’s Art Director Matt Clausen (yep, they’ve got one, and he’s working on some really cool stuff) and JPL’s web developer Alexander Smith, also working on some VERY cool stuff. He walked us through some rad internal apps he was developing that he could tell us about, but not let us use. Yet. The project Matt was most focused on was the Xbox Kinect game that NASA developed in conjunction with Microsoft (who paid the bulk of the development costs).
The game allows you to act as Curiosity and bring her down to a safe landing. It was available to play at both parties, and on Saturday night I overheard an engineer saying “I can’t watch! Most people crash it and it’s too unnerving!” We also got to learn nifty things about the rover like- what these holes in the aluminum tires are for. They spell out “JPL” in morse code. Originally, the team wanted it to literally spell “JPL” but upper management nixed that idea. So they opted for the more subtle branding in a (effectively) dead language. A great way to leave a mark responsibly.
However, what I found most intriguing was not the fact that it’s a full-service science lab, but the power train. Curiosity is plutonium powered! As the radioactive element decays, the heat it gives off is used to keep Curiosity warm, and converted to electricity to power her. Keep checking Curiosity’s home page for new photos and updates. Or just follow her on twitter. You might soon be able to read a lot more than this about it here on Gas2, as well as the nuclear-powered Stirling engine they’re developing…