Living on Martian Time
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. &