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Sunday, August 5, 2012
Outer Space ... Technology ...

The “space race” ain’t what it used to be in the USA. In the glory years of the 1960s and 70s, the USA put men on the moon and sent up the first orbiting space stations. But over the next 30 years, the dangerous-but-not-very-inspiring Space Shuttle soaked up most of the dwindling resources available for “exo-atmospheric” exploration, and ultimately left us at a dead end. For now, the only way for Americans to get into space is by hitching a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle (although NASA is working with Boeing, SpaceX and some other firms to get American manned vehicles back into earth orbit sometime before 2020 . . . or so they hope).

However, during these years, the USA had not done so badly in terms of sending increasingly sophisticated robot probes and vehicles to the planet next door, i.e. Mars. We’ve managed to get about 2 out of every 3 Mars missions successfully to the red planet, whether in orbit or to the surface via parachutes and rockets or bouncing air-bags. Now we’re kicking it up a notch with the Curiosity rover, a mission set to make a landing attempt in a few hours (around 1:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, Aug 6), eight months after launch from Cape Canaveral. This baby is almost 5 times the size of previous scientific rovers, and will be a scientific lab on wheels. It will move more than twice as fast as the Sojourner and 5 times the Opportunity, and have twice as many scientific instruments on board to probe the Martian surface. Sounds great, makes you almost proud once again of the American space program.

But one problem . . . first this thing has to land first, using a wacky “sky hook” arrangement combining parachutes from a rocket-propelled platform. You can watch the NASA video about this and see what you think. After watching this video, I got the feeling that the Curiosity isn’t going to make it. This looks way too complicated to work properly on first attempt. I expect to listen to tune in on my car radio tomorrow morning and hear that “a malfunction in the final minutes caused . . . ” This one is probably going to take more than one attempt to get it right (and waste a whole lot of money for each trial run).

If somehow our luck holds up and all the scientists and engineers and technicians and computer simulation programs that designed this mission really did get all the millions of details right on first attempt . . . it would really be a shot in the arm for the US in space. Personally, though, I think this spacecraft was designed to put too many eggs in too big a basket, a basket requiring a Rube Goldberg-like mechanism to get where it needs to go. In the future, I think they may need to go back to the simpler “bouncing ball” Martian landing technique that NASA has done relatively well with, and figure out a way to send maybe 3 or 4 separate small rovers at once. Those would then link up on the surface into a bigger, more capable science platform; but could still carry on even if one or two components didn’t make it.

Nonetheless, I have my fingers crossed for the Curiosity. I’m hoping that I’m wrong and that NASA gets it right. By the time you read this, I will either be a wise prophet or just another nattering nabob of negativism; remember those immortal words of former Vice President Spiro Agnew? Ironically, he was pushing for an American commitment to a manned Martian mission way back in the mid-1970s. He was a bit ahead of his time . . . just like this Curiosity thing might turn out to be (again, though, I’m hoping that it is an idea whose time has come!!).

POSTSCRIPT . . . Hey, I was wrong, they did it!!! Congratulations, NASA, I underestimated your technical prowess. Maybe you haven’t totally lost what you had back in the Apollo days . . . i.e., the RIGHT STUFF. So I got my $17 worth here!! (This mission cost about $2.5 billion, and I am one of about 150 million taxpayers in the US. Do the math.)

Nonetheless, I want to cite a good article from the Sunday NY Times, which hints that perhaps my negativity here wasn’t totally without some redeeming value. It’s titled, The Power of Negative Thinking.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm      

  1. Jim, Seems I saw a lot of celebrating on the part of a whole lot of engineers, etc.–and I think it was at NASA. I heard a quick, “oh, yeah, we landed the Curiosity just fine.” They did it! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 6, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Jim, I saw this a.m. pictures from Curiosity. Altho they showed a flat surface, something that looked somewhat like desert sand, with maybe a pebble or two thrown in, still, they were pictures from Curiosity. Amazing, I say. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 10, 2012 @ 6:42 am

  3. Jim, And, yes, I’ve always secretly held that if one worried enough about something, the worry warded off the thing one did not want to happen. So, yes, I can see the “value” of what you call negative thinking and I call worry. Same thing, I’m sure. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 10, 2012 @ 6:44 am

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