Mars: Man and Machine at Gale Crater

Hanging by a Thread
Hanging by a Thread | Courtesy of NASA - Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Some time before midnight on Sunday -- if the engineering was correct, if the computer simulations weren't off, if the debilitating cold of space didn't seep into some essential connection, if it's possible to slow tons of payload from 13,000 miles an hour to little more than one in seven minutes, if the rover will survive dangling from a hovering rocket platform to touch down safely, and if that message is relayed from Gale Crater to us ... so many ifs -- but if all goes well, the mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will know that they made it to Mars, the sexy beast of planets.

Dr. Adam Steltzner, who is the ponderously named Entry, Descent and Landing Phase leader at JPL, will be among the first to know. His team has spent almost a decade designing and testing the "sky crane" landing system that Dr. Steltzner himself sometimes thinks is crazy. (Watch the nail-biting sequence here.)

By the time Mars calls tomorrow night, he says, the rover will be "either fat, dumb, and happy on the surface or a smokin' pile o' rubble." (Not exactly William Shatner intoning "to boldly go where no man has gone before.")

Story continues below

Interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition by science reporter Joe Palka, Dr. Steltzner comes across as something of a next generation rocket scientist - born in the early 1960s, an outsider in high school, a less than mediocre student, into rock, a little punked, a little emo - nothing like the white-shirt and narrow-tie JPL dad that memoirist M. G. Lord describes in Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science.

When Dr. Steltzner speaks of the personal and professional risks in thelanding and the inherent grandeur of the Curiosity mission, he says that he's freaked out. So is, in its way, the Curiosity rover that Dr. Steltzner's team intends to land.

Gale Crater
Gale Crater | Courtesy of NASA - Jet Propulsion Laboratory (The rover's target is the yellow oval.)

Both the machine nearing Mars and the rocket scientist sitting in La Cañada Flintridge are companionably freaked -- hybrid beings tethered in a 28-minute-long feed-back loop, composites of expertise and mechanism both here and there, the man and the rover only semi-autonomous and feeling their way together.

We thought -- most of of us -- that it would be different. In the "hard" science fiction of the late 1930s through the launch of Sputnik in 1957, men on Mars meant just that: boots on the ground and the mechanisms that got them there as unfreaky as a Chevrolet.

But the Curiosity mission can't use a man to fly through the dangerous phases of its landing; Mars is so far away. And when (if?) the rover is dropped lightly on the ochre and red grit of the surface, other men will be carried along only as remote viewers on a slow, years-long progress to poke at bits of rock looking for hints of what might have been, what might still be, on Mars, but only at the machine's deliberate pace.

The Space Age was supposed to be our 20th century version of Winning of the West - a personal adventure for guys who were better in math than Wild Bill Cody and better at taking orders than Billy the Kid. It's turned out otherwise. The horses and wagons are there, trained and well built, but the cowboys and cavalry scouts are not in this scene, except via telepresence.

It was a mistake to think otherwise, to think that a place as unearthly as Mars - our synecdoche for all of space - would not require a new kind of being in order to be there. Dr. Steltzner, aptly named Adam, will roll out on the surface of Mars on Monday morning- if, if - and a little further into the age we have taught our machines to make for us.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focusblog.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading