Recently I saw my buddy, Rob Manning, running through Starbucks. He seemed hurried. Rob is chief engineer for JPL's Mars Science Laboratory mission and, since they are expecting to land the rover Curiosity Sunday night, I'm sure he had a lot on his mind.
I had a million questions for him. Considering his plight, I initially thought better of asking for a briefing on the status of Curiosity, hurtling through the solar system faster than you can say “Sweet Lucy Wine.”
But, what the heck? I can be very annoying.
“Hey Rob! Buy you a cup of coffee for an update on Curiosity.” I was as curious as a cat.
“Sure, Joe, what do you want to know?”
Emerson said, “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.” But space is too vast for my comprehension. You just can't believe how hugely mind-boggling it is for me. So this was my dilemma. I had this rocket engineer sitting in front of me and I didn't know what the heck to ask him.
I started in by asking why it has taken Curiosity so long to get to Mars. He looked at me as though I had no clue. I hadn't.
He explained because of the orbits of both Mars and Earth around the sun, the window of opportunity to launch happens every 26 months. You can't launch when Mars is orbiting behind the sun, and of course during touch down, Mars and Earth will be 156,240,000 miles apart, give or take a few yards. I don't say that facetiously because those rocket engineers account for every inch.
Rob explained, “Landing Curiosity on the surface of Mars is a product of reasoned engineering.” Scientists and engineers are constantly building, testing, evaluating, and rebuilding trying to stem the ripple effect of the inevitability of errors. Even to them, the idea of landing on Mars is amazing.
“We put all our eggs in that one moment,” he said. “Hopefully everything comes together as a single gigantic fantastic work of art.”
“My concern is not whether everything will work but whether we've done everything right to make it work,” he continued. “There are thousands of inter-dependent scenarios that split into thousands more. We've done our job, and at some point we have to trust our work.”
That night, he explained, JPL would send a signal to Curiosity. Traveling across the solar system at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take 14 minutes to get there. A status check would tell Curiosity, “You are on target; this is where you are; this is where you are going; good luck.”
Rob's curiosity is contagious. One cannot help but be in awe as he explained the mysteries of space and the marvelous structures of what is possible through exploration. Joseph Campbell said, “A vitalized person, vitalizes.” What is fascinating is that Rob was a classics major at Whitman College in Washington. His analysis is rooted in the humanities.
Curiosity is landing on a “wickedly cool” place adjacent to an immense mountain, and will begin to climb searching through 3½ billion years of existence.
“We're not trying to find life on Mars,” Rob told me. “We are looking for conditions from the past to tell us if Mars was right for life. The connectivity of all life is stunning, tenacious, sticky and awe-inspiring. Life is ubiquitous; it wants to be everywhere; it is transforming; its power is continuous. We are connected to this web.”
I sat mesmerized, drinking my black tea.
“So, what's the point of all this?” I asked.
Without missing a beat Rob said, “We explore to understand our own place and to discover who we are. We want to find proof that life is greater than what's on Earth, and that's why we're going.”
He paused, then added, “Besides, we're just curious.”