Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity and Mars

by Bill Holmes

I watched the landing of Curiosity on Mars last night.  For geeks, nerds or just the curious it was exciting.  It's another step in our quest to explore the universe.  The months and years ahead will determine how successful the mission is but you have to get to Mars before you can explore it. That was done on 8/6/12.

This is an amazing accomplishment.  NASA was able to land an SUV where they planned to on a planet millions of miles away.  Your mileage may vary from about 55 to 400 million kilometers.  Google maps turn by turn directions to Mars are only in beta so NASA couldn't use them.  They had to use slide rules and AAA maps to figure it out.

This was not exciting TV in the normal sense, it was a control room that looked like the old NASA space missions.  Tiered rows  of people wearing headsets and looking at computer monitors.  Not even any human audio from space saying we've achieved orbit or we've landed or "Houston. we have a problem".  Just telemetry and eventually two B&W pictures.  But you could see the joy of the people in the room as Curiosity went through different milestones.  People responsible for different phases of the mission were able to breath a sigh of relief.  Once she landed the room went wild in celebration.  To make an analogy, this was like the Olympics for the people in that room and they just won a gold medal.  Of course there are differences.  Most of those scientists have worked much longer than our Olympic athletes.  The average age is probably a bit higher too.  You can't become a rocket scientist at 17 years old or with a couple of years of training.  Luckily NASA is better at science than producing must watch TV.  Being a geek and curious (see what I did there), I enjoyed watching history being made.  I also enjoyed most of the news conference after the landing.  I'll get back to the news conference.

The mission control center was a potpourri of our American population.  It was made up of young and old, male and female.  There were Anglos, East Asians, South Asians, Hispanics, immigrants, hippies, Gays and who knows what else.  There were earrings  even in some men and I suspect there was a tattoo or two.  Everybody was wearing blue golf shirts and casual pants or jeans.  This was not your Daddy's mission control from the Mercury launches.  Some of you will remember that everybody back then was white, male, clean cut and wearing a white shirt and tie.  The new mission control looked good to me.

Now, lets talk about the stuff that concerned me and/or made me angry.  Some of this may not be politically correct, but it's my blog and I get to say what I want.

I did not see a single African-American in a blue golf shirt in mission control.  The only black I saw was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and he was wearing a suit.  Mr. Bolden is an outstanding American and former Marine and Astronaut, but he did not contribute to the science of the mission.  I don't think NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discriminate against minorities.  Otherwise there would not be a Middle Eastern Lebanese immigrant, Charles Elachi, as Director of JPL.  Nor would there be all the other groups represented.  I think it's a cultural and scholastic discrimination much earlier in the lives of the Blacks.  Just as society and probably educators believe all Asians are good at math and science, they also believe Blacks are not good at those disciplines.  I think these stereotypes make a difference.  Blacks are encouraged to pursue social studies and sports.  Asians are encouraged to pursue math and science.  I guess Anglos are encouraged to pursue law, sales and finance.  Some stray from the expectations but I think those stereotypes have a profound effect on most children.  There is also the family and peer expectations.  Some cultures appreciate and emphasize the hard sciences and others emphasize less intense disciplines or none at all.  It's too bad that any child grows up with that stigma and expectation.  My guess is that there are brilliant African-American rocket scientists in the making.  We just need to encourage and cultivate them when they are young.

After the successful landing of Curiosity, there was a press conference.  Well, who do you think opened that press conference and made the opening remarks?  Was it someone who had worked for years on the Mars mission, even a JPL or department head whose team participated?  No, it was Charles Bolden who opened the press conference.  He read almost the entire opening since he probably didn't know what just happened or who was responsible.  The only time he strayed from his script was when he made a personal comment about his good friend, John Holdren, Obama's chief science guy, being nervous during the landing.  Holdren spoke second, from a script, and made several political BS statements.  Next Chuck took the podium again and excused himself and Johnny from the remaining proceedings.  Seems John had another engagement.  So, what in the government funded scientific world was more important than landing a $2.5 billion SUV on Mars?  Maybe a more public and less nerdy event.  Makes me sick.

Luckily after the politicians left the real guys took the stage.  Amazingly there was very little read.  Charles Elachi did have a few notes but that was all.  The whole mission control team paraded through the press room.  Then the six or seven bosses talked about the mission and answered questions.  They were excited, proud and of course knowledgeable.  

I get so sick of politicians and/or far removed bosses taking the credit and the podium.  I hold little hope that this will ever change but I still get to bitch about it.  I just wish that those that do got the credit, not those that talk.

Congratulations to the Curiosity team for their outstanding accomplishment.  Boo to the politicians that tried to take credit for it.

Comments always welcome.


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