Phoenix Mars Lander

phoenix_marsview.jpg Congratulations everyone! Our Martian robot population increases by one. The Bad Astronomy guy (via Making Light) beats his chest for the humans a little loud, so I have to add my own experience in here.

During the landing I was at a pretty substantial bar-be-que party. I’m holding my phone (tuned into the Mars coverage) in one hand, cradling my beer with the other hand, and I’m outside watching a band play. In some sort of sartorial self-realization I concluded that “hey, the future is pretty cool after all.”

That parachute photo is pretty fantastic though.

Also fantastic is this photo from NASA Watch. Devon Island is an arctic island where several research groups have been operating because it’s considered to be a pretty good analog to Mars. I’ll say it is!


The Enigma Of Arthur C. Clarke

clarke_2001.jpgI was five or six years old when I saw 2001 for the first time at a revival showing at the Orange Cinedome in 1971. It’s the first movie I remember seeing in a theater and thirty-seven years down the line that experience of seeing it stands out more in my emotional memory than things like my first visit to the Grand Canyon or even the launch of Apollo 17. Stendhal syndrome may not be soley limited to Florentine art and 2001 is my proof positive of that. Having said that, I’m going to commit an unspeakable act of criticism…

Arthur C. Clarke basically only wrote one story and then spent the rest of his writing career revising, modifying, and re-editing that story as science, society, and the simple passage of time evolved. It’s a process that wouldn’t be unknown to any of the characters in his books – mostly scientists, learned people, assorted technocrats and polymaths, all of whom have the sufficient time and resources to argue, complain, and otherwise deal with the big questions.

That one story was Clarke’s first sale: Rescue Party from 1946. In it, a galactic federation of ETs learn that the Sun is about to go Nova – threatening an intelligent species that lives on the third planet. A ship is dispatched to make contact and “if there was any trouble the rescue would be by force and the explanations could come later.” Along the way there are alien hive minds, planetary tourism, misidentification of what’s information and what isn’t, hell even a black monolith. And as with many of his storys, Clarke throws in a punch line at the end.

The evolution of humanity is much too important of a task to be left to mere humans and if asteroid impacts, heat death of the sun, or well-placed prehistoric artifacts won’t accomplish this then direct alien interference will do just nicely in order to become a citizen of the universe. Shades of a space-age Rudyard Kipling with aliens as Imperial Britain and the solar system as colonial India. The Overlords in Childhood’s End have a pretty advanced case of White ET’s Burden and I can’t help but wonder at how non-coincidental it was that Clarke lived most of his life in Sri Lanka. And if we’re going to play the intelligence relativism card, just how appropriate is it for the humans in The Deep Range to harvest an intelligent species (whales) for food?

Clarke’s famous third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” could be semantically interpreted as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from god” and there’s a lot of that going around in his stories: the revivification of Frank Poole in 3001, the clones of Imperial Earth, most of Childhood’s End, the Chrislam sect in The Hammer Of God. Maybe advanced technology requires an advanced form of mysticism to keep it in check? Maybe it’s the other way around? Maybe it’s both? Clarke’s later stories do consider the blowback effects of unchecked technocracy, but you’re never really sure. Maybe he’s leaving that up to us to figure out.

It’s that open-endedness that’s kept me a fan of his work. And honestly, I’d much rather live in a world created by people who avidly read Clarke than I would one created by fans of Heinlein, Asimov, or really anyone else. These days it’s much more radical to be an optimist.

Favorite Clarke book? It’s really not any of his novels (the 2001 story benefits much more as a movie when Kubrick is on board) but his short stories. Two to check out are “I Remember Babylon” – a PKDesque story in which Clarke (as himself!) encounters a Soviet agent who thanks him for creating geosynchronous satellites. The satellites are used to beam junk television around the world, only with propaganda embedded within. Second is “Patent Pending” – scientists create a machine that can record and playback human experience. Can’t afford a meal at an expensive restaurant? Purchase the experience at a much lower price. If you’ve seen Brainstorm and/or Strange Days, you know what’s coming next…

I think there’s only three members of SF’s golden age left now. Ray Bradbury, Fred Pohl, and Jack Vance.

Boldly going where everyone has been before

*sigh* It may just be time to take NASA out back behind the barn and put a bullet in it’s head because after twenty-five years of landing on, well, land, it looks like the next design revision of Orion will be splashdowns only. Apparently nothing has progressed in conglomerate-built spaceflight since 1962. NASA might as well have joint activities with the Society For Creative Anachronism. More anger and FUD to be found at the NASA forums.

On the other hand, NASA is very good at burning heaps of cash on ugly-ass graphics. Check out this prime piece of bureaucratic-speak from the NASA Office Of Strategic Communications:

I am pleased to provide you with the final NASA Message Construct. These messages have been market tested and have proven to resonate best with the general public.

The Message Construct serves to guide your communication efforts with the general public. We are asking that you use the Core Message: “NASA explores for answers that power our future,” in the text of your communications material and that it be used verbatim. We also have developed a graphic element to illustrate and enhance the Core Message. The graphic element is: Inspiration + Innovation + Discovery = Future. The graphic element is to be used on all Agency communications materials. The other messages in the Message Construct are also market-tested and should be used where best applicable.

Here’s the graphic element in question:


Yuck! Doesn’t the new Core Message make you want to fly into space? Maybe now it’s not so surprising that a couple of astronauts are hitting the sauce.

Meanwhile, I’ll await the day when someone makes a “SpaceShipTwo, Government Zero” sign.

The New Earth

The only thing that’s more amazing than the announcement of Gliese 581c is the artwork that the Daily Mail used to illustrate it.


The new planet is apparently a 1950s cover to Fantasy & Science Fiction. Really the only thing missing there is a tri-tailfinned rocket and someone in a bubble-headed spacesuit. Maybe the way to kick-start a new space program isn’t with Apollo-era iconography, but with pulp SF guns, girls, and ghouls.

Somewhere out there Chesley Bonestell is grinning…

Ladd Observatory, Providence

Chris Perridas has been blogging about H.P. Lovecraft and his time in Providence, Rhode Island and his post today featured the Ladd Observatory. Originally built in 1891, Lovecraft used to hang out there quite a bit:

Ladd remains a living museum of 19th century astronomy practices, complete with creaking staircases and a pleasantly musty attic smell.”

“Some of those rooms, like the one that houses the old transit telescopes, haven’t been fully renovated. As the door creaks open, visitors are greeted by a blast of cold air. The lights don’t work, but Targan shows groups around anyway, with the aid of a flashlight, pointing out how the telescopes were used to keep time by tracing the stars along the sky’s meridian. In the dark, with various strange-looking contraptions covered in dark sheets, the building has a certain haunted house-quality, and indeed, Ladd is said to be haunted by at least one ghost — that of noted Providence fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. “Did he ever come here?” a visitor asks. “Are you kidding?” Jackson says. “He had a key to the place.” As a teenager, Lovecraft displayed a keen interest in the skies, even writing regular articles about astronomy for Providence newspapers. And he enjoyed the run of the observatory, thanks to then-director Winslow Upton, a friend of the Lovecraft family.”

I took a mini-Lovecraftian tour of Providence on my Loop The USA road trip in 1994 and fell in love with the little observatory the second I saw it.

Ladd Observatory

I have my doubts that the swing set out front can ward off Eldrich Horrors, but maybe that’s how you summon Them in the first place.

Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you

(a somewhat belated entry to the Carl Sagan blog-a-thon)


I have a vivid memory of the first time I saw Carl Sagan on television and it wasn’t Johnny Carson or Cosmos. It was during the 1971 Mariner 9 mission to Mars. A planet-wide dust storm was obscuring all the surface features which left everyone sitting around killing time while waiting for the dust to settle. Sagan was being interviewed about what the orbiter might see and he was asked about Percival Lowell, the Martian canals (sorry, “canale”), and Martian War Of The Worlds. Sagan took the guy’s question seriously and without any condescension offered that while there didn’t seem to be any Martians or water in the traditional 19th century sense, there could have been in the past. He added that if Martian climate could change dramatically, then Earth’s climate could change just as radically. Either way, further study is important because there’s only one Earth.

Heady stuff for a six year old, but he made it interesting and (most important) extraordinarily cool.

A couple years later there was a Cornell alumni event (both my parents are from Ithaca and my dad was a Cornell grad) in Los Angeles with Sagan and he talked about the then-recent Viking landings and what the ambiguous biological experiment readings meant – emphasizing that science shouldn’t allow itself to be tunnel-visioned into one particular belief while it’s trying to figure things out. A theme that runs constant through his subsequent writing.

I got to meet him afterward and he gave me a stack of Mars photos that he used in the presentation and autographed one to me. Thirty years later, I’m still kicking myself for losing track of it though it’s probably Out There Somewhere. I remember exactly what picture it was and what he wrote on it:


“To Chris – Hope you get to visit here. — Carl Sagan”

Somewhere over your head the future is happening, part II

How to tell the difference between the International Space Station and all the other air traffic overhead:

  • The ISS might be visible immediately on the horizon, or it might wink into existence depending on the geometry between you and the sunlight reflecting off the solar panels.
  • Airplanes have green and red navigation lights and may have flashing strobes.
  • The ISS will suddenly fade from view before it reaches the far horizon as it passes into the earth’s shadow.
  • The ISS will be above any clouds (at least I really hope so!)

Tonight’s pass over Los Angeles just now was one of the best I’ve seen. Amazingly clear sky this evening. So far, it seems that Heavens Above has slightly more accurate pass timings than NASA.