Essays


 

Red Rover, Red Rover


“I told my assistant, George Anderson, to whom I had shown the object, that I thought I had discovered a satellite of Mars. I told him also to keep quiet as I did not wish anything said until the matter was beyond doubt. He said nothing, but the thing was too good to keep and I let it out myself.”

 

                                                            Asaph Hall

 

Mars has no need for winter. Broken and barren, cold beyond our iciest dreams, even on its best and brightest day, one’s mood there would have to bolster itself without the hope of a better season or a new day. But still, despite all that, you know, I’d like to go. I offer no explanation. And I’m not alone. When the first of the rovers shut down this past week and was silent and unresponsive, I worried. I went out and looked at the Red Planet in the southwest and sent the little robot my good tidings. I waved for some odd reason. It felt cold out but, really, what do I know of cold?

 

The small, framed images of Mars that the Spirit Rover returns to us make Mars look bright and red and dusty. I assume because Mars is bright and red and dusty. Looks like it is on some side trail in Monument Valley, a bad place for street hockey or baseball. It does not appear to be minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit though that is somewhere close to the average temperature there. Generally, landscapes that look like the one I’ve seen make us Earthlings think “hot.” It ain’t. It is scare-an-Eskimo cold. But surely the little Spirit is insulated. With some sort of space age thinsulate, some kind of composite-fiber wonderwool, the full metal jacket of our mothering instincts. I admit that it does not look all that insulated in its widely circulated NASA portrait. It looks thin and strutty, squat like a coffee table with satellite reception and a hammerhead—it looks like spacebob squarepants. Its tires appear grooved for the kind of trouble a Hummer would run from. At least we did that. And its recording eye must surely be shaded with some high-tech monocular shade for the sun’s awesome glare out there. Oh, the Godawful sun of Mars. Mister Spirit does not look built for high speed, he doesn’t look that safe and secure overall, but surely we gave him a cool shade for his sensor eye.

 

Mars has 0.13% oxygen in its atmosphere. This is not a good level for romping about if you are a human. We have 21% oxygen here. It is the poison that makes us go. At least the rovers won’t be rusting out, anyway. Water free, oxygen poor, it is a very carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. Not bad, really, for robots. The gravity there is about one third of earth’s gravity. So we human males would weigh sixty or seventy pounds in our strolls over the bouldered plains. We could leap nine feet or so into the air and be slam-dunkers all. I don’t know what Spirit weighs on earth. I don’t think it has a jumping function. But wow at the bounces it must have made on that banging, kangaroo landing it had to make to get onto Mars, wrapped in its compartmented marshmallow of a shell—the bubble-wrap of the Gods.

 

Transient dust events are how the Mars weather guys refer to the big storms on Mars. My gut feeling is that this is not a name I would use if I were experiencing one. (Red Screamers? The Devil’s Ruddy Scour?) I assume they are tremendous things if we can occasionally see them in our telescopes. Good Lord. And what kind of wind chill factor are we talking about? The weather did make me wonder if they gave Spirit some sort of crouch setting, some sort of duck-and-cover, a fold-up position for the big storm occurrences. The special code signal for Spirit in this situation being, of course: “Turtle. Turtle. Turtle.” That wall of dry, cold dust wheeling toward you like a scarlet sandmonster; you and the rover looking for some crater to dive into for shelter. I can see it.

 

The Babylonians called Mars the deathstar because of that odd red color. Nothing else in our sky approaches that shade. Frankly, I’m kind of partial to it—this color, I mean. Mars has a steady shine, no glint or flicker. I look for it when I go out at night to let the dogs loose. Those are my best stargazing times. The dogs sniff and roam while I stare at the deathstar. To them, I have no common sense anyway. I waste all my trips outside and don’t bother to urinate on a single thing. What the hell am I thinking?

 

Foggy Bottoms is a name I personally would have thought would be warning enough to intelligent men pondering the perfect place to put their really large and expensive telescope. (You want to put it where? No thank you.) But the Naval Observatory and its fine telescope was in Foggy Bottoms back when Asaph Hall was in charge of it, over a hundred and twenty years ago. (They have moved it since.) It was a 26 inch refractor. Big for that time. Monstrous.

 

Mister Hall: "I repeated the examination in the early part of the night of [August] 11th, and again found nothing, but trying again some hours later I found a faint object on the following side and a little north of the planet. I had barely time to secure an observation of its position when fog from the River stopped the work. This was at half past two o'clock on the night of the 11th. Cloudy weather intervened for several days.”

 

Poor Asaph must have suffered many nights inside the wispy vagaries of mist and fog, sitting in his commander’s chair at Foggy Bottoms. It is tempting to imagine him cursing the sky, shaking his fist at the rude wet heavens, blinking his eye at the wraiths and curls of imagined discovery. The man was obviously a patient soul. Clouds in the eye, geese flying by, the red orb taunts and vanishes. Oh for some eyedrops and a clear mountaintop. Oh for Mars to etch itself in ghosted shadows on my retina.

 

Opportunity is the other rover’s name. We sent two. And we put them way way apart so there will be no downtime for chatting between the pair. Opportunity bounced down on the other side of the Red Planet recently. Apparently hitting the bullseye of all bullseyes, it actually landed inside the crater NASA was aiming for. But it may be trapped inside, circled by six foot walls—I await further word. It landed inside the Meridiani Planum, in what has now been renamed the Challenger Memorial Station, after the lost Challenger Astronauts. I remember them. Who doesn’t? I can still see the shape of that white plume of theirs, the funereal one that they could not see themselves. It is my triggered image whenever the word Challenger comes up. Odd but true enough. It gives the Opportunity’s playground an added significance. We all hope the little guy can roll about and stun us over and over with his rocky explorations.

 

Building 29 in Houston is where we have recreated the Martian surface habitat so we can play in it ourselves and learn to live in it for extended periods. Floor made of Hawaiian volcanic dirt and stone—hope it is red. (Haven’t seen the place myself, though all of us paid for it in some small way.) We’ve been dreaming of going to Mars for a long while. Our robots are just our vicarious lead men, though we have several problems to solve before we can go ourselves. Our little moon runs were just that: little runs—bring all our own supplies, come back fast. The moon after all is just right there. Mars is the serious mileage. For Mars we are going to have to stay awhile, possibly over a year or two. We have to have time to make our own fuel there for the return trip and to make our own food and water. The little rovers are checking for water now. If they find sufficient surface water frozen there, it is another check mark off the list.

 

"On Aug. 15th the weather looking more promising, I slept at the Observatory. The sky cleared off with a thunderstorm at 11 o'clock and the search was resumed. The atmosphere however was in a very bad condition and Mars was so blazing and unsteady that nothing could be seen of the object, which we now know was at that time so near the planet as to be invisible.”

 

Asaph Hall found his moon the next day on the 16th of August and his announcement about both moons stunned the world soon afterward. We were more scientifically minded back then. We were a world of space fans. We had fewer distractions from the joyous sport of pure discovery. Hall was honored for the rest of his life for finding these two Martian moons. Phobos and Deimos are their names. Meaning Fear and Panic respectively. Phobos flies only 6000 km above the surface of Mars. That is tight and low. It zooms across the sky about three times a day there, rising in the west and falling away to the east. It is so close that it cannot be seen from all aspects of the small planet. And it is only seventeen miles in length.

 

Phobos looks like a big dented potato. It has a huge crater on one side that is known as Stickney. It was named after Asaph Hall’s wife. It bears her maiden name. I found nowhere how his wife felt about this—having her name on a huge dent. Phobos is so tight in its orbit that it loses some ground every year, a couple of meters, and is getting closer and closer to the surface. In about fifty million years, it will crash into Mars in what will surely be a spectacular moment.

 

My boyhood imaginings of Mars were colored by Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter character—a magic cave, green men, six-legged dogs, warlords and princesses. Mister Carter leaping inhumanly over the hapless Martians, fast swordplay on the red plains—that is mostly gone now. The rovers look out on fields that look blasted and lonely. Not populated. The Princess would shrivel and freeze. I’m for pointing the camera at the sky to watch a fast moon whiz over. We need to make sure there isn’t anything else. Let some random taxpayers take the controls and gaze where they will. This would be a lottery ticket worth buying.

 

There is one Mars journey scenario (among many) where we send a squad of worker robots up there and they are tasked with setting up enclosed gardens and water factories for our later arrival. They would build our home and start the fire so to speak. Send down the all clear. And then we would bop on in. This may be my favorite scenario. Though it does require some very capable robots.

 

And really, we must be careful with places like Mars. You know what I mean? It is in our dreamings. It is a place where boys go when they need to go places in their heads, with or without John Carter. We all need places to go. The moon was one; Mars has been another. So we watch the rover’s views of the place and compare it with our previous dreams. It is necessary—for me anyway. It may be modifying the way we see Mars in our sleeping.

 

I think it is safe to assume Asaph’s wife did not know her moon and her crater were going to crash fifty million years from now (or then). To be fair, I don’t think Asaph knew about this himself. He thought he was putting her name on an eternal thing. And the rules probably did not allow him to name a whole moon after his wife, though there is something to be said for a moon named Betty or Virginia. Surely this is better than a moon named Panic. Panic and Fear? Why not Doom and Gloom? I’m for Virginia. Is it too late to start a renaming petition?

 

Spirit has begun the slow process of reawakening after whatever it was that happened to the poor guy when he rolled down the ramp and took up the full Martian panorama in his eye. He was dumbstruck. Or it is easy to think that’s what happened anyway. Something went haywire in his digital appreciation. He locked up and went ga-ga. And our NASA guys have been trying to bring him back ever since. Me, I keep waving when I am out with the dogs. I keep thinking of the robot on the plain. I picture squarepants there alone on the red landscape staring off into the distances, his hammerhead pitched up to see the racing moons, the staggering sunrise, and then the moons again. And he just stands there looking. His robot eye doesn’t have a blink mode, so it just locks open in full gape. The little aluminun ears are attuned to the sky and the wheeling satellites, waiting for the next word from his maker.

 

Dark and cold with the dogs once more, I squint up at the deathstar. And I think about the fact that the maker this little rover waits for is a room full of soft-shelled men. Men with doubts and dependencies, men with worries, with mortgages and ten year marriages, creatures with processors so biologically soft they couldn’t sit on a table without turning into something like a stranded jellyfish. It must come down to one man and one brain at a single keyboard speaking for us all—the man with the million mile whisper of zero-one-one-one-zero-zero. We the binary God in the rover’s stunned ear, what do we say? What should we say?

 

“Swing low, sweet chariot.” Sometimes, you know, it is just better to sing. How do you say that in naughts and aughts? God is the inconsistency, the pause between the letters. God is both the unexpected voice and the silence. The experience of God is mostly in the listening.

 

Who wants to tell Spirit we are just as worried as he is? When we find our own way we will pass on the word.

 

 

                HR