"DESTINATION MARS" new from Prometheus Books...

After writing two books about the Apollo program, it is time to move beyond cis-lunar space and visit other worlds. "Destination Mars" is the complete story of humanity's missions to the red planet. From that stunning moment in 1965 when Mariner 4 swept away the fanciful Martian empire of men like Percival Lowell, to that amazing first landing on Mars by Viking 1, to the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory, this book explores the missions to the fourth planet in a fast-paced, energetic style. My goal was to make the book read like a novel while remaining a factual retelling of this sweeping story.

This blog will combine snippets from the book with original (and often little-known) tales from the annals of the exploration of Mars, while including occasional guest-posts and random diversions.


"Destination Mars brings to life an extraordinary part of human exploration—the preliminary reconnaissance of the planet of dreams over the last fifty years. Enlivened by interviews with many of the participants, you will feel as if you are exploring the planet with them." --Steven J. Dick, former NASA Chief Historian

"Mars has long held a special fascination for Americans, perhaps it might even be a planet that harbors life. Rod Pyle has written a fine account of this fascination; outlining the history of the robotic space probes sent to the red planet and the knowledge gained through these expeditions." --Roger D. Launius, PhD, senior curator, Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Monday, December 3, 2012

Martian Mystery: He Said, S/He Said...

The finale of the Great Mars Dust-Up was on stage today at the AGU conference in San Francisco. A panel of MSL scientists were first up (AGU knew better than to keep the TV networks waiting; their collective short-term attention spans were rapidly exceeded. The specialty press- us- hung in there). First came Paul Mahaffy, in charge of the SAM instrument (which is capable of detecting organics):

"SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds,"

Next was John Grotzinger, the mission scientist for JPL/Caltech:

"Even though [Mahaffy's] instrument detected organic compounds, first of all we have to determine whether they're indigenous to Mars,"

So Mahaffy says 'DIdn't find anything' the Grotzinger says 'Even though he found it, we gotta make sure it's indigenous to Mars...'


I know it's in the semantics, the details, the parsing of the words... and they both meant the same thing, ie they found some small indication but it is not validated yet- hence the "definitive" jargon. And Grotzinger was certainly clear about his newfound need to be, um, careful when speaking to the press
(we will see if he ever does so again, not that it was really his fault; Joe Palca and the rest of them/us did a bit of overtime with this one).


We are dealing with the beginnings of what could end up being life, or pre-life, or at least simple organics on Mars. Add this to the recent (ca 2008) reinterpretation of the Viking experiments by Chris McKay up at Ames, which built a pretty good case for at least the strong possibility that Viking may have found something organic and living after all (and in 1976!), and it's a red-hot chili-pepper of an issue.

And of course, all this happened almost two weeks after the initial announcement, which created a sensation. The NASA/JPL PR apparatus was slow to respond, then did so haltingly (though Guy Webster and Veronica MacGregor at JPL did their best to address it quickly). The real problem was that "IT" was not really addressed at all. A simple announcement paralleling what was said today could have been made in two sentences, putting out the fire. But of course, it must go from MSL science team--> to JPL PR unit--> NASA HQ (uh-oh) PR --> policy makers --> (possibly) administrator level --> back to JPL. No wonder it took till last Friday to get the beginning of something definitive.

The PR machine at our favorite space agency could use a good oiling, methinks. And stop being gun-shy because of the (now ancient history) Mars meteor debacle! That's was 1996! Time to move on.

The upshot: the public is crazy about Mars right now. It's a golden opportunity to capitalize on this and finally get the funding Mars/JPL deserve. Please NASA, don't squander it.

See the article cited at Space.com- http://www.space.com/18741-mars-rover-curiosity-discovery.html

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bravo, JPL! Now Here Are Your Pink Slips.

At a JPL press conference just after the landing of Curiosity, one of the questions addressed to the scientists, engineers and the Lab ran something like this: "Congratulations, you have done a fantastic job. You invented a new way to land on other worlds with heavy, amazing robots and made it look easy. Now, how many of you will be looking for work next week?" There was some laughter and then muted chuckles, then it got very quiet as many hands were slowly raised. Surely not this many? 

Some will continue to work on Curiosity as it explores Gale Crater and beyond. But for others it's time to scan the want-ads (if they can find any). Thanks for your service, you are no longer needed. JPL doesn't fly to other planets anymore (see below).

It seems no matter how well NASA/JPL performs, no matter how long beyond the stipulated time the mission goes, NASA is punished. Success guarantees nothing.

A common question, still, is: "Why go? Why spend all that money on space when we have problems here on Earth?" This tired query has been with us since the days of Apollo. So indeed: why go?
Because: all successful missions to Mars from the US have outperformed their expected life-cycle. A good example is the MER rover Opportunity which had a planned 90-day mission; it has currently logged over 3000. Other missions have done as well.

Because: $2.4 billion buys us one bailout of a tiny savings and loan, or just under a week of combat operations in the Middle East. That's how quickly the tax dollars burn.

Because: space dollars are not shoveled into the spacecraft and shot into space. They are spent here on Earth, designing spacecraft and missions, hammering together rovers and rockets and paying smart people to do good work. They buy parts and services here in the United States (well less than half of your Chevy is built here- 99% of your Curiosity rover is). They support working Americans.

And I should add, all this is in the pursuit of one of the few things the United States does better than anyone: exploring space, and in particular exploring other planets. Scorecard for Mars: USA, 70%, Russia/USSR, 11% (Europe has fielded one partial success). Mars is hard to do.

Now, add in one more critical component: NASA and JPL engages education  unlike any other federal agency. Future scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists and geologists are plucked from universities and enticed in high schools. That’s good for America too.

The list goes on. I could list a thousand or more spinoffs from NASA that would impress. Something like 90% of all the coolest modern technology, including digital watches, iPads, your mother’s pacemaker, the engine management systems in modern automobiles and even the circuit board in today’s microwave ovens owe their existence to NASA. And these advances continue to flow out of a space agency that has seen its budget hacked and its mission divided. But that's still nothing compared to what has befallen JPL.

JPL has a measly eight missions approved for the upcoming decade and not one of them leaves Earth orbit after 2013. As of then, JPL will never explore another world, save whatever their other aging probes scattered across the solar system can accomplish. The Lab’s planetary exploration budget has been cut by a full 20% or roughly $300 million this year alone.

Perhaps, given time, Curiosity will find something with its limited life-seeking capability that will lead us to conclude that life is likely on Mars. That could save space exploration... but don't count on it.

No, Congress, the Senate and the Executive Branch must unite to lead us to new and braver ventures. The media must care and show the world the amazing things that come from space exploration as only the media can. And the public- you- must do your part to press forward. Write, call, vote. You know the drill.

Because if one thing is for certain, it's that in the planetary exploration business, great success does not breed brave and daring programs, it breeds ennui and indifference. And those, above all, are the enemies of everything we hold dear.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Is Down, and Ready to Roll (almost)!

Thank goodness the last post is now obsolete. Well, almost (see end). Amidst a tumult of shouts and cheers, the message came back to the JPL press room at 10:32 PM Pacific Time on Sunday night: Curiosity is down, all is well.

Color me surprised! Though I had confidence in the engineering, it was a daunting challenge to land the big, heavy rover on Mars. Dozens of sequences had to go just right, over a hundred pyrotechnic devices had to fire, and so forth, for the rover to complete a successful landing.

As the assembled reporters waited out the 16-minute delay from Earth to Mars, along with hundreds more at the auditorium across the JPL campus and those in mission control, all were aware that whatever we would soon know had already occurred. Either Curiosity was sitting amidst a small dust cloud on the surface of Mars, or it was scattered across a few hundred acres of Gale Crater. Fortunately, it was the former.

Relieved controllers were swamped by the press, and soon the leaders of the mission were assembled on the press dias to give their assessment of the landing. In short- we are there, we are healthy and we will soon be ready to rumble.

Within minutes the first images were in from the Hazcams, showing a murky, lo-res image of a lens cover partially askew. Later a fine image of the shadow of the rover on Martian soil was seen. All across JPL, at may other venues across Pasadena, and even the grand sweep of Times Square in Manhattan, people smiled, pumped fists and hugged one another. We had done it again. The ever-elusive notion of success on Mars was once again America's to claim.

Within two days the camera mast will be up and panoramic images will be coming down to Earth. We will, once again, see the desolation that is Mars. And soon, the biggest, most complex and capable machine ever landed on another world will begin to drive towards scientifically intriguing targets. A new round of discoveries will begin.

Of note: at JPL, the Curiosity test unit was on display. If one got close enough, one could see the slots etched in the wheels of the machine, oddly-spaced cuts in the wheel surfaces. They are Morse code that will show up in the traversed soil. The code spells out "JPL."

Good job, NASA. You have done it again. Here's to hoping that this spurs more defined plans for exploration on the planetary exploration front. Let's not squander this amazing accomplishment. It's time to renew our commitment to reaching out and exploring... now.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity": What if it fails? What if it doesn't?

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity at work.
I was interviewed today about the future of the unmanned space program. These are always a bit difficult because, while I am among NASA and JPL's biggest boosters, as an outsider to NASA I also have the flexibility to lower the flag to half-mast (as opposed to flying it high, as I usually do) and speaking candidly. Today was one of those days. With the landing of Curiosity imminent, what is the future of Mars exploration, and planetary exploration, going to look like?

Let's step back for a moment. The US Mars program has had a roughly 70% success rate since it began with Mariner 4 in 1965. Mariner 3 never made it to Mars. Similarly, when Mariner 9 flew in 1971, Mariner 8 was also a no show. And etc. This is one of the reasons we launched spacecraft bound for the Red Planet in pairs, ala the Mariners, Viking, and others. One backstopped the other.

Of note: the Soviet Union/Russian Federation have an 11% success rate (this takes into account partial successes), so while ingenious and notable they are not a part of this discussion. Europe has done better (with Russian assistance in most cases), but with just a few efforts, it's too early to tell.

Why is it so hard to reach Mars? After gaining the moon, flying the shuttle into orbit 100-plus times, and scouting the outer planets, why does Mars still eat spacecraft? As recently as 1998/1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander failed, one due to faulty programming (the infamous metric/imperial units issue), and the other with a faulty sensor. The planet seems to have a grudge against being explored.

But let's look at the numbers again. Most of the US failures were early on. The Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter programs were both victims of the arguably misguided "Faster, Better, Cheaper" initiative begun under NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. Parts of other spacecraft were used or recycled. Software was repurposed. And so forth. As the engineers at JPL will tell you off the record about "FBC," "Pick any two." They are right.

And don't forget- the further out you go, the more the errors are magnified. Trajectory, time exposed to intense radiation and brutal temperature swings, aging computer boards and more all take their toll. This is not an 8-day moon mission; we are talking many years in the harshest environment known.

So we know that the odds for success are with newer missions and modern equipment and software, which is expensive. And we wish for the ability to fly twin spacecraft, just in case. It's all about funding.

Despite these restrictions, JPL is still a PR jewel in NASA's crown. The vast majority of their missions, Mars or otherwise, perform so far beyond their primary missions it is almost laughable- if one was not so stunned by admiration. The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity? Designed to last 90 days, now in its eighth year, or some 3,020 days past its warranty. The Vikings did similarly well, with the Viking 1 lander performing yeoman duty for six years, and ceasing to function only after a bad command was sent up. It had plenty of ife left in its nuclear fuel. And so forth with the orbiters around Mars- unless they run out of maneuvering fuel, they just keep going and going. Mars Odyssey, the current record holder, has passed its first decade of operation in Martian orbit.

So back to MSL/Curiosity. Here we have the largest, heaviest and most capable rover (or lander) ever devised. But due to these characteristics it became prohibitively expensive and only one was built and flown. And to land this heavy machine a new and incredibly complex landing system had to be devised- one that is costing many sleepless nights around JPL as landing day nears. There's one shot- then we will know.

So, as the interviewer asked, what if MSL fails? I responded by asking, what if it succeeds? Other than the wonderful progression from Mars Pathfinder (1996) to the Mars Exploration Rovers (2003), success in planetary exploration usually breeds neglect. When the Vikings were amazingly successful on Mars, it took us 20 years to return to the surface, even while very smart people were still arguing about whether or not life had been found by its primitive analysis. There are other examples, but you get the point. The unmanned program of planetary exploration has always been the poor stepchild to manned spaceflight (though there is precious little of that at the moment), and JPL has made do with what was left. And in the process performed brilliantly.

Their reward as of today? Well, as regards Mars, they have one very expensive ($2.3 billion; more if operations continue over time) lander, MSL, which should soon be operational, and a small and specialized orbiter, MAVEN, scheduled for launch towards Mars next year. Beyond that, through to 2020, the manifest is barren. There are a total of 8 new missions planned, all in low Earth orbit, and most looking at Earth (they do good work- climate change, weather prediction and more, but are not exciting to most civillians). And between 2014 and 2019, ZERO new missions are currently approved. So back to Mars: after MAVEN, we will be left with whatever is functioning on the Martian surface (MER Opportunity and, with luck, MSL Curiosity), and overhead Mars Odyssey (not for much longer) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. That's it.

So win or lose, the broad outlook is similar. Of course, if MSL is a success, the results should be staggering. Here, for less cost than a week of combat in Afghanistan of the bailout of a small S&L from a few years back, we will learn more about the history of water on the planet, and may well puzzle out the likelihood of living things there. And so much more: the results should quickly outstrip everything learned on the Martian surface to date. But success or failure, the future of Mars exploration beyond 2013 is bleak.

View of Mars from a Viking orbiter.
This is a long answer to the interviewer's short question. And the answer is: it doesn't really matter if MSL succeeds or fails as regards the big picture. Not because it is not brilliant, it is. Not because Mars is not important, it is! But because the United States has, in a major way, turned its back on its own impressive past in space exploration, as the civillian populace has becomes consumed with consumerism, we fight multiple (and seemingly endless) wars, and hope against hope that our economy will recover, even as we ship more jobs overseas. Exploration and science for its own sake has waned to the lowest point since NASA was founded (in relative terms). The political support for Mars is weak, and for the manned program is slowly fading. If we did not have the International Space Station (which we crew via Russian rockets), the astronaut office in Houston would be an empty cavern.

Success with MSL will be thrilling and amazing. Failure will be heartbreaking. But in either case, NASA and JPL need a major shot in the arm. Not just of cash, although that is important, but of enthusiastic support, political backing and new blood. To quote a propellant engineer from the Apollo days when he bumped into the astronaut inspecting the rocket he was about to ride to the moon: "Nothing on this rocket will fail because of me." NASA in general, and JPL in particular, must not be allowed to fail because of us... no matter what the outcome of Sunday night is.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mars, Angry Dude

Mars, as seen by people of pre-scientific times, is traditionally represented as the god of war: a thing of fury, blood and death. Entertaining, but not the fellow you want at your Saturday afternoon BBQ. So I thought I'd take a moment here to detail some slightly alternative representations of Mars through the ages.

Ancient East Indian myths surrounding Mars, or Mangal/Angaraka as they referred to him (Mars seemed to be rewritten often by ancient cultures) referred to the planet/god as "auspicious, lke burning coal and the fair one." While warlike, Mars was also organized, energetic, and got things done. He would have made as good a modern office manager in the Bangalore tech-corridor as a godly general in combat. He was also, however, argumentative and temperamental, so perhaps not. In either case, he was said to provide great "administrative capability." Hmmm.

The Mesopotamians equated Mars with the god Nergal, representative of the underworld and all that this implies. While not as overtly warlike, to invoke Nergal did not portend a good day. That said, the Babylonians split the association with Nergal between Mars and the sun. In any case, he was in effect the governor of the dead population living below ground, and as such, did not have so much time for creating mayhem above.

In Egypt, Mars was associated with Horus among others. Saturn and Jupiter were also associated with Horus. When cavorting with Mars, the god became Horus the Red or Har Deshur. His head was that of a bird (either a noble falcon or somewhat comedic flamingo, depending on the source you believe), often seen in hieroglyphs. In another incarnation, Mars was the "good warrior," protecting the common man as the god Anhur (who began life as a war god- things tend to go full cycle in these tales).

While the Romans rocked-out to Mars as they sacked and pillage most of Europe, the Greeks, from whom they took most astrological inspiration, were not so fond of the Red Planet. While anointing him as a god, they often viewed him with some contempt, even revulsion. To them, Mars was more randomly destructive and destabilizing, as opposed to the later Romans who found his martial ferocity more appealing to their own bloody and disturbing sense of progress-through-conquest. The Greek Zeus even referred to Ares (Mars) as the god most hateful and repellent to him. He was regarded as hot-headed, impulsive and a liar, as opposed to Athena, his sister, who was a general's general. Feminist's unite!

Overall, it sucked to be Mars in Greece.

As mentioned, the Romans were more welcoming of Mars' destructive tendencies, emulating them across much of a continent. Alternative representations, however, see Mars as a god of agriculture (something Ares and others would have doubtless be revolted by!).

Later periods became more clinical, if not more objective.

The following is taken from a slim volume about Mars by the esteemed Willy Ley (1906-1969, part of the von Braun faction from Germany), which he wrote in 1966. The hardback version cost... 60 cents. Those were the days.

By the late middle ages (1500's), for instance, observers of the Red Planet had amassed a virtual catalog of Martian mischief. "Mars rules catastrophe and war, it is master of the daylight hours of darkness of Tuesday and the hours of darkness on Friday, its element is fire, its metal is iron, its gems jasper and hematite, and it rules the color red. Its qualities are warm and dry, it rules the color red, the liver, the blood vessels, the kidneys and gallbladder as well as the left ear. Being of choleric temper, it especially rules males between the ages of 42 and 57." Uh-oh...

What is of interest to
this middle aged writer of science histories (me) is that a) the unnamed "Middle Ages" author (as opposed to this middle-aged author) got a few things right within the ragged fantasy he spun. For instance, hematite has been found on Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover in copious quantities, part of the wave of proof that water once existed there in great volumes. How the heck did this now-turned-to-dust fellow know that? Coincidence, I am sure. The reference to iron is a bit more straightforward, as the ruddy aspect of Mars in the night sky certainly looks like a spot of rust. But again, iron oxide was what has been found in those distant sands. However, warm and dry it is not, and my gallbladder can malfunction quite well without the intervention of Mars, or Venus, or Peewee Herman for that matter, thank you very much.

Moving on.Later in the same tome (in German, as translated from Latin), the anonymous scribe tried his hand at planetary poetry:

"Third planet am I, named Mars,
Fiercest and angriest of all the stars,
By Nature I am hot and dry,
Choleric my temper, though people sigh,
Of the twelve signs, not all are friendly
But Ares and Scorpio attend me,
While in their realms my fearful rays
Cause murders, death and fear all days.
My highest seat is Capricorn,
In Cancer of my might I am shorn.
Through all twelve Signs I abound
And in two years sweep clear around."

Ley, of course, recreated the rhyming in English from his native German. While lampooning the original writer, he was not such a poet himself it would seem. Overall, the "poem" does not seem to contain much of interest, other than charting Mars' relationships with other members of the zodiac. Nonetheless, his evil, warlike reputation is confirmed once again. This is the more traditional representation of the Red Guy.

After this, by the time Galileo and others began turning telescopes to the sky, Mars became more of a "what" than a "who." The Age of Reason took away a bit of the fun, and drama, of man's relationship with Mars. That is, until people like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell began to intuit the idea of advanced life forms and massive canal-based engineering projects from swimming telescopic images.

But that's another story!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Brag Board

OK, this is not specifically a Mars post... but I just had to crow. I got a review (short though it may be) in NATURE, the prestigious UK journal. Color me happy!

Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet
Rod Pyle Prometheus 280 pp. $19 (2012)
The seductive fascination of the red planet never palls, and science writer and documentary maker Rod Pyle stokes our hunger. For the Mars obsessed, the real thrills will be in his detailed descriptions of upcoming missions, the pseudo-Martian research conducted in Earth’s most hostile environments, and interviews with explorers such as Steven Squyres, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover. Pyle’s look at the planet and our perceptions and probings of it also covers Mars’s geography, geology and hydrology, and its cultural history on Earth.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

End of an Empire

I remember it well... the day I realized that the Martian empire of Percival Lowell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many others vanished into the red sands of Mars. It was late July of 1965, I was a tender nine-years of age, and had spent countless hours devouring any and all books about Mars in our meager elementary school library. The jury was still out... was there life? Were there beings there? Was the "Wave of Darkening" really plant life waxing and waning with the seasons? Did the canals of late 19th Century fame exist?

Then from CalTech and JPL the results were made public. Mariner 4 had flown past the planet, snapping 22 images and revealing the truth. Mars was an arid desert: dry, desolate and cold beyond imagining. Via incredibly ingenious techniques, most unappreciated by this allegedly precocious lad, the scientists had seen Mars for what it really was... a dead world. It would be years before the dynamics of wind and water there would be observed; many more before they would be understood. The important thing was this: science had robbed me of a beloved (and adolescent) vision of our neighboring planet.

But there were holdouts. The popular press still circulated ideas that there might be life- even beings- holed up underground and beyond observation! Hope, though sputtering like a flame in a stiff breeze, remained.

But before long, other probes flew into the Great Darkness and journeyed past, then orbited, Mars; finally landing there in 1976. While the resulting data was intensely exciting to scientists and mature readers, to a young man, the news just got worse. Mars was dead.

Fortunately, this was the golden era of Apollo. Soon the adventures of a few select men who traveled to, then trod upon the lunar surface supplanted the news from the Red Planet. The moon was deader than Mars would ever be, but America had done it, and the laurels of accomplishment could never be taken form us. Humanity had visited another world. And surely, Mars would not be far behind.

As I grew into adolescence, I read the plans of North American Rockwell and others for follow-on missions to my favorite planet with breathless glee. Surely the amazing hardware of the Apollo program would be utilized for the Next Logical Step, to visit the next logical destination. No sane government would throw away such grand accomplishments. Mars was in our future.

Well, it still is. We all know what happened after Apollo wound down with the orbital link-up between an Apollo Command Module and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. That was it. The remaining boosters rusted outside NASA's space-age facilities in Florida, Houston and Huntsville. The Lunar Modules and other hardware remaining from the cancelled flights of Apollos 18, 19 and 20 were relegated to various museums.

So the question remains: who will go, and when. With China on an aggressive course toward a space station of their own, India and Japan angling for crewed spaceflight and other nations dreaming of joining the game, it is an open query.

But for now Mars remains the domain of robots, primarily of US origins, orbiting along silent paths above its arid plains and roving its dusty surface. We may yet find some form of life there; frozen water has been found in copious quantities and where there is water, life may well follow. It will not likely be bipedal or humanoid; if extant, it will likely be mere lowly bacteria. But if it is there, we wil find it, eventually. And if we find it, we will visit in person. Someday.

The dream lives on.