The Drama of #Mars

Jelly Doughnut RockWe live in stunning, Earth-shaking times, when a single research organization makes breakthrough scientific discoveries that cannot be duplicated or corroborated because they have sole access to the object being tested.

We achieve the far-reaching efficiency of a whole team of scientists exploring a narrow footpath, 24 miles long, in only a decade.

Our minds reel to keep up with the fast-moving pace of kicking over a small rock and looking under it in just weeks.

Sorry, my cynicism isn’t directed at the Mars Explorer team.  They are doing the best they can, and a marvelous job, with the limited tools that we have given them.

I once listened in on a conversation between a circle of avid cat-lovers, talking about what they liked best about their favorite pet cat they’ve ever owned.  I almost broke out laughing when I noticed that every one of the activities and personality traits they highlighted were rare among cats but which existentially define dogs.  I almost jumped up and screamed, “For crying out loud people, just get a dog!”

The JPL scientists discuss the health of the Mars Exploration rovers using terms that a physician would use to discuss a human patient.  They crow about the long life of the ten-year old Opportunity Rover in terms that we use to compliment the vitality of an elderly person.  They think that it is great that the rover has achieved a lot in its life, traveling and taking pictures and discovering new things…and can look back on a decade of service to humanity.  Now they marvel that it has kicked over a rock and looked under it.  Sounds like the things that we like the most about the Opportunity rover are rare to robots, but are things that people, especially human scientists, do all the time.

For crying out loud people…just send some humans.

In the movie “Ever After”, Patrick Godfrey, playing Leonardo da Vinci, lets Cinderella (played by Drew Barrymore) out of a room that her step mother (Anjelica Huston) has locked her in.  He does this by pulling the hinge pins out of the door…something I thought was an awesomely DaVincish thing to do.  When the servants marvel at his brilliance, he grins that sly and wicked grin of his and quips, “Yes! I shall go down in history as the man who opened a door!”

I fear that Opportunity, in spite of all of its achievements, shall some day go down in history as the robot that turned a stone.  Hidden underneath the “Jelly Doughnut” rock lies more than just some great science, but also the very flaws inherent in the mindset of sending a robot to do a man’s job.  It has taken Opportunity a decade, on a world awash in rocks and new things, to find something new hidden under a rock.  What if a human boot had kicked over the Jelly Doughnut rock years ago?  Think of it.  I don’t know how many scientists work on the Opportunity rover team, but what if that same number of men and women actually had been on Mars, making trails in pairs and kicking over rocks, for the past ten Earth years?

Yes, I know that it is a lot cheaper to send robots to the Moon and Mars, and we do wonderful things with them, but where it takes a decade for a robot to look under a rock, it takes a human about, what, as long as it takes him or her to see a rock, pick it up, and look underneath?  We rack our brains on the question of how to get a rover in to look at what satellite imagery seems to have identified as something akin to actual running water on Mars, but a human could have just jumped in a vehicle and driven over to check it out.  We stress over the fate of the now deceased Spirit Rover when someone could have just gone over and given it a good push, some repairs, and a jump-start.  It’s ridiculous!

You get what you pay for I guess.  I just think we are loosing a lot of time, money, and opportunity pouring half-pennies into a vending machine that takes dollars, while some culture-advancing prize lies just out of our reach behind the glass.

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~ by Bill Housley on January 25, 2014.

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