Hype and Hyperbole

Previously by Jim Karger: When They Come For Your Guns… YouWill Turn Them Over

All the hype and hyperbole surrounding the Curiosity rover landing on Mars is really quite humorous. Terms like "biggest", "best", "most ambitious", and "powerful" have been landing with thuds as resounding as the rover itself. Frankly, it all calls for a little reality check, which we love to do around here.

First of all, Curiosity is a little over 40 years too late to claim all the big titles. In 1970 and 1973, the Soviet Union landed two rovers, called Lunokhod 1 and 2, on the Moon. They were about the same size and weight, and had more or less the same toys as Curiosity (including laser and radiation detector).

By the way, Lunokhod means "moon walker", so even Michael Jackson got beat on that one.

Together, these rovers lasted a bit over a year and traveled 10 miles or so. They dug up rocks and took pictures, just like Curiosity presumably will do. If you count the fact that various groups still bounce lasers off of these rovers to measure the precise distance to the Moon, then they’ve been working for well over 40 years.

So, how about most ambitious? Well, let’s start with what Curiosity can do. It can take photos, drill rocks and sample dirt. It’s stated goal is to find the "building blocks of life." Can we find anything more ambitious than that?

Well, let’s completely forget the Apollo Moon landings, since the Curiosity media team seem to have done so. Instead, let’s limit ourselves to just robotic missions. And if we measure ambition by the science goals, then the idea of looking for real, extant life on another world would trump rocks, I think. So, if we measure ambition by the potential impact of the data gained, then searching for actual life, and not "building blocks" would be far more ambitious.

For pure ambition, by this measure, the award goes to the two Viking landers in 1976. These pretty large landers had full biology labs on-board and were tasked with actually FINDING extant life. And by all accounts, they did! In fact, the chief investigator for one of the experiments, Gil Levin, has been fighting for 36 years to get someone…anyone…to notice the fact.

Strangely, every mission to Mars since Viking has done nothing more than take vacation snapshots and sniff rocks looking for "ingredients" and "building blocks". Even if one argues that the Viking data was ambiguous or chemically induced, doesn’t the possibility of finding extant life warrant another try?

Another example of great ambitions? How about the Soviet Venera landers? Again in 1970, the Soviets landed the first machine on another planet. On top of that, they had to survive near-Earth gravity, an acid cloud layer, atmospheric pressure more than 90x Earth normal, and surface temperatures around 860F. The first one, Venera 7, not only did all that, but sent back data for four months.

Pretty damned ambitious, given the state of the technology back then and the fact that no one else had ever landed It’s a craft on another planet.

So, where does that leave all the hype and hyperbole surrounding the Curiosity rover? It’s certainly not the most ambitious mission. It doesn’t address any questions that haven’t already been amply investigated by multiple orbiters and landers. It’s not the first, but maybe the biggest, but only by a few kilograms. In fact, about the only big deals with this mission are the landing itself and the HD cameras.

The landing was remarkable for the Rube Goldberg series of events dubbed the "Seven Minutes of Terror". It is unique for all the crap it left lying within a half-mile radius of the rover, including two tungsten weights, a heat shield, a massive parachute attached with a lot of string to a backshell, and a rocket backpack with three long cabes that chewed up a lot of real estate during it’s brief time on stage. The landing was also notable for being pretty darned close to the idea spot.

As for the nifty HD cameras, well they’re controlled by a guy names Mike Malin of Malin Space Science Systems. This guy has well over a decade’s worth of history NOT showing the full-resolution pix to the folks who paid for them. On the few occasions he’s been badgered into letting loose of a few, he’s gone out of his way to screw them up and fuzz out anything of interest. In other words, you won’t catch me holding my breath waiting for the dazzlling hi-rez photos from this rover.

Where does all this leave us, once you strip away all the hype and hyperbole?

The rover management team keeps talking about looking for water. Well, for God’s sake boys, let me help you. There are two polar caps chock full of water. The Vikings sent back photos of snow. There are thousands of pictures of water clouds. The Phoenix lander dug up ice. There are water seeps all over the place. And if you believe your eyes, there’s even great pictures of lakes and ponds.

They tell us they are searching for the "building blocks" of life. Well, let me help you again. The Vikings found microbes in the soil. Some of those lakes and ponds have what look like algae that grow and die with the seasons. There are entire forests of giant tree-like things near the south pole. And gosh, what about all those pyramids, domes, buildings, and giant sculptures?

In the end, we are still where we were in 1976, only several billion dollars poorer. Sure, we’ve got lots of pretty pictures, but we don’t get the really good quality ones. Those are for the personal collection of Mike Malin. Sure, we’ve got scads of data from sniffing rocks, but that only excites the geekiest geology buffs. Basically, what we’ve got is another multi-billion dollar ad campaign for rocks and vacation slide shows.

After 36 years and billions of bux, don’t we deserve a little more than seven minutes of terror?