Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rover Spirit Roves No More

2001: A Space Odyssey is a countdown to tomorrow, a road map to human destiny, a quest for the infinite. It is a dazzling, Academy Award®-winning visual achievement, a compelling drama of man vs. machine, a stunning meld of music and motion. It may be the masterwork of director Stanley Kubrick (who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke)…and it will likely excite, inspire and enthrall for generations.
Thus begins the official website of a film I was really excited to finally get to see at the Reseda Theater more than a year after its 1968 release. (Films stayed in circulation longer in those days.)

I was indeed excited, inspired, and enthralled -- and also pretty baffled through much of it. Then again it's not really a film for 10-year-old boys, even in the summer Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon. I really need to see it again. Alas, I expect to be disappointed -- though hopefully not so much by the film itself.

The disappointment I expect will be most heartfelt during one particular scene. It's not a particularly exciting scene, except that it's in the Pan Am terminal at the Space Station. Perfectly reasonable to expect in 1968 for 2001 -- but this is the year 2010. There is no more Pan Am. Worse, no one's flying to the space station, except for a few astronauts on Space Shuttles that don't come close to what they were designed to do.

It's no an accident that, in the NASA section of my I Want to Go! web page (which I partially updated a couple of weeks ago), I highlight the classic 1998 quote from Rick Tumlinson, President of the Space Frontier Foundation:
"Thirty-six years after sending John Glenn into orbit, NASA has finally achieved the capability to send John Glenn into orbit."
We should be snippy, for twelve years later NASA's not much closer. If you'd told me when I was 10 that the reason I'd not been in space by now was that we couldn't do it (rather than because it might be too expensive) I would have thought you were flippin' crazy.

So it was good yesterday to read about something that NASA didn't screw up. Spirit and Opportunity are the two Mars Expedition Rovers that landed on Mars in January 2004, six years ago. They were designed to explore for 90 days.

They're both still running. Not necessarily all that well, of course. Yesterdays news was about Spirit, which has been stuck in sand since last May, won't rove any more. And yet, if she survives the upcoming Martian winter, she'll continue her scientific research of the Red Planet as a "stationary research platform." Meanwhile, Opportunity continues to slowly roll across the Martian surface.

Sure, it should be someone like you or me up there rather than a couple of robots on wheels millions of miles from a tow truck. It's 2010, for heaven's sake; we were walking on the Moon 41 years ago!

But for that, short-sighted American leadership (including Presidents and Congresses) are as much to blame as a space agency that lost its vision. But give the folks at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a cheer for gettiing this mission righter than anyone could have hoped.

Stay warm this Martian winter, well-named Spirit. And come spring, show us more what you're made of,


TeeJay said...

I have a favorite nephew who worked for NASA until last year. His statement concerning the surety of space travel... "If human, don't go."

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