Monthly Archives: June 2011

Living on Martian Time

Living on Martian Time


June 23, 2011

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission By Andrew Kessler*Pegasus Books, 341 pages, $27.95

In 2008, NASA successfully landed a robotic machine called Phoenix in the northern polar region of Mars in an attempt to uncover water and organic material from the frozen environment atop the Red Planet. Overseeing the mission was space engineer Peter Smith, a man who disdains his unofficial title as “world’s greatest Martian photographer” (“Don’t call me that . . . It diminishes the science,” Smith is fond of saying) despite his talent for preserving “little Mars vignettes” for all on Earth to see. Smith is also known for other accomplishments, including the device he spent five years building—an excavator that could scoop up Martian soil samples for analysis on command from its operators 200 million miles away, ultimately proving that there was water on Mars in some form. The other epic achievement was his decision to find a fresh voice to tell the story of searching for life forms on other planets. Smith chose Andrew Kessler, a 32-year-old creative director for Huge, a New York design and marketing firm, who holds a degree in mathematics. Kessler may not be a scientist but he was fascinated and understood outer space well enough to co-produce the documentary Mars: The Quest for Life for the Discovery Channel.

Believing that NASA long ago fumbled the task of portraying its scientists and engineers in a dynamic way that could capture the public’s imagination, Kessler was inspired to write a book that reveals the 130-person crew at Mission Control in Tucson, Arizona, as epic space explorers with brilliant minds and quirky personality traits. Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission is a “warts-and-all look at the Phoenix Mars mission from a regular guy who loves space.” Kessler admits from the outset that his is “not the most accurate account” of the Phoenix Mars mission. “Instead, this is an account of winning the nerd lottery: The luckiest fanboy in fandom gets a shot to spend three months with unfettered access to Mission Control,” he writes in the author’s note that prefaces the story.



Kessler assumes the self-deprecating role of an observer who is initially terrified to approach the brains behind the exploratory brawn with what he fears might be dumb questions. Regardless, Kessler has researched his topic well, and leaves little doubt that he knows what he’s writing about.

The author describes how telescopes transformed Mars from “a dot, a speck of light” into a world similar to Earth. “Imaginations ran wild, and before long, rather than seeing vast, wonderful possibilities, we feared a Martian attack. As a war of the worlds loomed, Mars became a source of fear and anxiety.”

A spacecraft named Mariner 4 took photos of the Martian surface in the 1960s and Viking I landed there in the 1970s. Neither revealed that Mars’ environment could support life like Earth’s does, so the planet was more or less abandoned. That is, until the 1990s, when a small chunk of Mars that had found its way to Earth 10 years earlier—due to what Kessler calls a “cosmic collision”—caught scientists’ interest. Discovered in Antarctica, the specimen was eventually sliced open, revealing tiny microbes (“simple little guys with evidence of a few of the basic structures of life, like a cell wall,” explains Kessler) that gave earthlings reason to return to Mars.

Scooping Martian dirt into an oven onboard Phoenix designed to determine soil ingredients is, by Kessler’s telling, a dramatic event. His sense of humor is ever present, serving as a lifeline for readers when things get a little too scientific. He writes: “One of the secrets of Phoenix is that it actually wasn’t born a lander. Well, more precisely, its body was a lander but its internal software started life as an orbiter. Julia [Bell, one of the rocket scientists] engineered the lander reassignment surgery—a robot sex-change operation. That makes her more of a surrogate mother/reconstructive surgeon than engineer to Phoenix.”

He shares behind-the-scenes details, including the Phoenix team’s decision to name one of the trenches from which the robot scoops samples “Dodo” (from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland) –”Goldilocks.” Kessler explains: “(Peter Smith) wanted the names to appeal to kids, so they named them after fairy tales. ‘On Pathfinder [a 1997 Mars mission that Smith was involved with that included a robotic rover named Sojourner] we named (areas on Mars) after cartoon characters, but NASA worried we would get sued for copyright infringement. I don’t think we ever got sued. Although I think the Cartoon Network sent us some T-shirts. This time we chose characters in the public domain.’”

By making himself a part of the story despite his lack of official scientific credentials, Kessler has indeed provided a fresh path down which novice space fanatics can feel safe venturing. For those who found biology and chemistry to be a drag in high school, Andrew Kessler has arrived as a real space hero to make what was once way over our heads a bit more down to Earth, and downright entertaining. &


Red Planet Redux


Red Planet Redux

A chat with Martian Summer author Andrew Kessler

June 23, 2011

Black & White: You really do come across as a regular guy with a passionate interest in space. Was being in Mission Control nerve-wracking at first?
Andrew Kessler: It was absolutely nerve-wracking. The more you kind of wade in, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Once things actually start happening there’s this “Oh shit!” moment, “This is so over my head.” And then you don’t feel bad about asking questions. You know, when you see scientists ask each other a question, then you realize, “Oh, even these guys [don't know things].” But there’s so many specialties (skill-wise) that are happening. There’s the guys that recalibrate the batteries. There are the guys who are monitoring the power. People monitor software. Even though those guys work closely and are experts in what they do, there’s a big gulf between each of the disciplines.

At what point did you start feeling more comfortable, like you were beginning to fit in and become accepted?
That was sort of a slow process. There was probably a day about a month in where I felt like I understood everything that had happened that day. That was kind of a big deal. And then probably after that, the first time someone asked me what was going on. I felt like I had a purpose, too, because I’m only human. Because even though I was there doing research and writing a book, you wonder if you’re in people’s way. And then I explained to someone why a particular dig (into Martian dirt) had failed. I just felt so proud of myself! I had this kind of silly moment where I really didn’t know all that much but just a little bit of insider info that I was able to provide to someone else who I looked up to. And one of these very smart scientists was like, “You’re part of the team . . .” I actually tried to write this book with more of a serious approach in the beginning because I felt this tremendous burden. I could tell these people’s story well and I felt their story was so important and they worked so hard. And then I found myself falling into that same trap where it was dehumanizing to think that I felt so connected with them. As a matter of fact, it was fun to be out at Mission Control. People are funny, they are quirky, and you relate to them in different ways, and you relate to the lander in different ways. And then I decided, “Oh, I have to tell the story in a more honest way,” which would be for me—which is how I write. I think it worked out for the better. I hope so anyway. I certainly get panned for it sometimes, by people expecting more hard science that are annoyed with my personality. That is the one flaw of the book—that you have to suffer through my personality in order to get excited about space. [laughs]


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You were asked to step out of some meetings when things were deemed too sensitive for outside observers. Were you ever concerned that you would be asked to leave the premises permanently?
Yeah, I was very fearful in the beginning that someone would say that they didn’t want me there. That was kind of a constant fear and it took a while to build up my courage to talk to people. I would have to do this thing that I hated about myself where I would have to make snap judgments about people, about whether they would be friendly on the project or not. I kind of slowly made friends with people. I was very much a wallflower in the beginning, until I felt more secure. Then I had more of a story and I took more risks in asking questions and spending time with people, and really asking them to explain over and over again what it was that they were doing so that I really felt like I understood it.

How did you and Peter Smith meet?
Peter was looking for ways to publicize the mission. He found me through a contact of his. Basically, I went down to meet with him and to talk about different ways to approach the story. And he was interested in a book and he was interested in new voices telling that story. So I just went down and hung out with him for a weekend and we talked a lot. He had his reservations, and then over the course of the year something changed and he decided that since I had spent a lot of time there, I had worked pitching this Discovery documentary about the mission, and he decided it might be fun to write this [from an] outsider['s] perspective.

Did you become fascinated with outer space as a child?
Oh yeah. The first time I learned “Many Very Early Men Ate Juicy Steaks Using No Plates” to memorize the planets—Pluto was still a planet then. I was amazed that there were all these other worlds out there. I was generally curious of science anyway as a little kid. So that’s when this sort of fascination began. I’ve been kind of a casual fan ever since, and it’s kind of waxed and waned over time. But then my mind was blown and I remembered how awesome it was and how much I used to love it when I got into Mission Control. It seemed like, “This is the real deal.”

I think the most exciting stuff NASA does these days are the robotic missions, not the manned missions that the public supposedly craves.
Yeah, I agree. The problem is that we don’t really know our astronauts and we don’t really know what they’re doing. I think NASA could do a better [job] telling that story or connecting us with those astronauts. The people who operate these robots—these robots are doing crazy things; these telescopes are doing crazy, amazing things, taking beautiful pictures. And if we could kind of connect with these artists and these craftsmen who make it possible, I think we’d have this really rich, narrative space to play in. People want stars. I think scientists could be kind of these stars if [NASA] really knew what they were doing [from a public relations standpoint].

While reading the book, I kept thinking I was on Mars observing all this activity of both the robot and the scientists, and I kept forgetting that the scientists were still on Earth.
That’s the best part of Mission Control, when you lose yourself for those brief moments and you really think about what the lander is doing on Mars and you feel this connection to it—it’s more than just a robot. You find yourself rooting for these scoops [of Martian dirt] to happen.

Have any of the people you were hanging out with at Mission Control expressed irritation with you about the book?
There are a few people that were very candid in some of the things they said [during the mission] that maybe have some regrets about saying them. For the most part, it’s been really positive. Maybe people are just not telling me there’s negative feedback. That was the hardest part, right? You can’t write the book for the people in the mission. But they all became very important to me and I felt this real responsibility to them. A lot of them didn’t have time to enjoy it while they were there. That was one nice bit of feedback, that I was able to put them back in that moment and they were able to enjoy it without having the burden of work and long, crushing hours.

You spent a year training for the mission?
NASA requires you to have training sessions where basically you learn how to work together to operate your mission. I also spent a lot of time interviewing the scientists before the project. I did basic Mars research and instrument research just trying to learn so I would not sound like an idiot, which was my biggest fear, on day one when I got there.

Did the engineers in Mission Control frequently refer to signs of possible ice as the “white stuff?”
Yeah, they did. It was funny, kind of a cultural thing where very few people want to commit to new discoveries so they come up with all these euphemisms for things they believe to be true. But they don’t want anyone to say that they were the ones that said “This is ice.” They kind of talk around things in a funny way. They’re a little bit fearful of being the guy who misspeaks because then the press will jump on all these things. In some sense it’s funny. But then other times you see why they do it. There’s a moment where one of the scientists says, “It’s [Martian soil] acidic, you could grow asparagus in it.” Then the headline was “Grow Asparagus on Mars!” I think it’s great when that happens because then it makes people care, they can connect to this thing. But it makes the science team a little nervous when they become known as the guy who was going to grow asparagus on Mars. &