Next week, while we’re all watching NBC, a nuclear-powered, MINI-Cooper-sized super rover will land on Mars. We accurately guided this monster from 200 million miles away (that’s 7.6 million marathons). It requires better accuracy than an Olympic golfer teeing off in London and hitting a hole-in-one in Auckland, New Zealand. It will use a laser to blast rocks, a chemical nose to sniff out the potential for life, and hundreds of other feats of near-magic. Will these discoveries lead us down a path to confirming life on other planets? Wouldn’t that be a good story that might make people care about science? But telling us this story means more than just the composition of the rocks (sorry, Mars geologists). It’s about the team that makes it happen.
No one producing an Olympic teaser asks, “What’s the importance of 100 meters?” No, they tell us about the athletes who dedicate their lives to running the race, because dedication and triumph are what make a human running 100 meters interesting. If NBC can get us all misty-eyed about 100 meters, imagine what NASA could do with 200 million miles.
The Mars race is about human survival and understanding our place in a vast and terrifyingly beautiful universe. And the stories of its athletes (mathletes?) should be world-class, because they accomplish near-impossible tasks on a cosmic scale — the hardest sport you could ever compete in. It requires dedication and doggedness that only the most passionate people in the universe could deliver. Unfortunately, this drama plays out behind closed doors. We won’t have insights into the sacrifice, scandal, discovery, divorce, hardship, and drama that it takes to work for a decade delivering a one-ton super rover to another planet. It’s the biggest irony that the most junior engineer at NASA is fearless in the face of trying to send a robot to Mars, but the career bureaucrats are afraid to tell that engineer’s story of failure or success.
NASA will say that they’re doing the best they can and stretching their education and outreach budgets to the max. But if they hope to stay in business, they need to tell us how they’re pushing the limits of humanity with over-the-top, risky-ass missions that will answer questions about who we are as a species on this planet.
Andrew Kessler, The Huffington Post. Why You Should Be More Interested in Mars Than the Olympics.
Kessler, who spent ninety days inside NASA to write Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission, believes the agency is “so frightened of failure that they’re willing to sacrifice their greatest asset: the ability to inspire.” In other words, they no longer tell a good story.
Know who could help? Kick ass science journalists.
Sidenote: AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards applications are due tomorrow.