"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

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