Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Sticks Its Landing

On Sunday night, I took time out from watching Olympic gymnastics to trek to Pasadena. In a Caltech auditorium, surrounded by men and women who had spent years of their lives on the project, I cheered the live video feed from the JPL control room confirming that the Mars Science Lab -- an over-sized Wall-E type thingamajig named Curiosity -- had landed safely on the Red Planet. It felt like an extraordinary combination of science fiction and reality TV, a sort of celestial Dancing with the Stars. NASA, which in the light of proposed budget cuts needs all the good publicity it can muster, is doing its best to highlight the drama of the mission. It sent its feeds worldwide (there was a viewing party in Times Square), and tried hard to illuminate for the novice such features as the Sky Crane as well as the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” that tense waiting period before we would know for sure if Curiosity had reached its destination with all systems go.

Of course a Martian sighting would have helped.

Mars has always captured the human imagination. The Romans named it after their god of war, and writers and filmmakers have long imagined it populated with hostile creatures bent on destroying civilization as we know it. Orson Welles’ 1938 live radio version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, broadcast as though an invasion were actually in progress, famously sparked panic. Welles’ dramatic coup in turn sparked one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which mysterious extraterrestrial doings cause paranoid small-town Americans to turn on one another.

I can’t begin to count the number of movies that feature Mars and Martians. There’ve been deadly serious films, as well as totally goofy ones, like Tim Burton’s delightful Mars Attacks! In most cases, of course, science fiction is as much about how human beings behave under pressure as about threats from outer space. (See for instance Independence Day, in which – in response to an invasion by unspecified aliens – mankind bravely rises to its own defense.)

But, in light of my trip to the California Institute of Technology, I’ve been thinking about a gathering that took place in the very auditorium in which I sat last night. It was held in anticipation of a much earlier Mars success story, the November 1971 arrival of Mariner 9, which would orbit the Red Planet, sending back the first-ever photos of the Martian surface. Among the superstars present were Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, who had collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the most mesmerizing and maddening science fiction film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to cinematographer Bruce Logan, who as a very young animator spent several years on 2001, Clarke submitted a voiceover narration that would have put the film in context, helping out viewers by explaining its enigmatic ending. This, though, was scrapped by Kubrick, who decreed, “Let them figure it out.”

An important point about 2001 is that it was made when human beings had only taken baby steps into space. In 1999, Clarke’s novelization of 2001 appeared in a new Millennial Edition. His introduction notes that “2001 was written in an age which now lies beyond one of the great divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility. Now history and fiction have been inextricably intertwined; the Apollo astronauts had already seen the film when they left for the moon.”

Can't resist adding this terrific Youtube tribute to Curiosity and the JPL team:

Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong, born August 5, 1930, died August 25, 2012


  1. And congratulations to the Gray family. A new grandchild and a new planet in the same year!

  2. Thanks, Dona, for keeping tabs on me. Yes, there's been a lot to like in 2012!

  3. Was the trip to CalTech an invitation event, or was it open to the public? Sounds like a very cool evening in any case!

    Mars movies are really prevalent - and stretch out from Schwarzenegger epics like Total Recall to the inanity of 1990's Spaced Invaders, with Royal Dano. My favorite is Abbott and Costello Go To Mars - not only do the boys not go to Mars - the script has their rocket prematurely landing outside New Orleans - with A&C believing they are on another planet due to Mardi Gras and the costumes - but they weren't even headed to Mars - the rocket was supposed to take them to Venus! I guess even Universal Studios executives aren't immune to the siren call of the Red Planet! (Besides, Abbott and Costello Go To Venus doesn't have the same ring to it!)

  4. I honestly don't know the Abbott and Costello film (they were never favorites of mine), but I AM partial to Venus, because I'm married to a guy who has been connected to several Venus missions, including the highly successful Pioneer Venus probe. And Venus is more romantic, after all!

    The CalTech event was by invitation only, but there were certainly a lot of people present. A very special night . . .