Category Archives: Ancient Archives

Embracing the Future

My Op-Ed piece on the Mars Polar Lander ran in the Pasadena Star-News on 2000/01/20.
I was one of the NAG (Navigation Advisory Group) folks providing advice and help to the Mars Polar Lander Navigation Team after the crash of the Mars Climate Observer a few months earlier. We were chagrined to learn that the entry target region at Mars was incredibly small, and maybe not even attainable by the Navigation Team. Promises had been made which should not have been made. Unless the team was beefed up and new methods were implemented, the second failure in a row at Mars was itching to happen. After a lot of effort and worry, the day of the landing arrived. The Navigators and NAGs rejoiced because we had delivered the spacecraft to where it should be. Alas, the Navigation was right but the landing software was wrong …


Mars: NASA / Foter /

Dearly beloved, we gather to celebrate an arrival, not mourn a departure. Let us give thanks for the future and bury the past.

Conversation dies and silence gathers as the minutes tick-tick-tick toward 12:39 in the afternoon of a Southern California day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m jammed cheek-by-jowl with fifty other people in a narrow hallway running half around a glass-enclosed operations room. Another thirty people wedge into that small room. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, is there — a gray eminence watching quietly and lethally. There’s Richard Cook, Project Manager, and bird-like Ed Stone, JPL Director. There’s John McNamee, Project Developer, looking intensely haunted and somber. Where are we? Where are we going?

“Take more risks,” Goldin said. “Don’t be afraid of failure,” he pronounced at the dawn of Faster, Better, Cheaper. More recently he added a stern codicil: “But don’t fail.”

We’ve been at risk for eleven months since our dearly departed little brother, Mars Polar Lander, became irretrievable at launch. Today, December 3rd, 1999, a cloud of uncertainty begins to precipitate into reality as we listen for the first available peep from little brother. We won’t know for several minutes yet, thirteen, twelve, eleven …

You have to roll dice in the space biz, there’s no getting around it. Everyone in that room and hallway has something on the line. For the mission engineers and scientists it’s a few years of their lives and careers. For others like myself—one of the navigators trying to figure out where we are going—only a few weeks of commitment are at stake. Only a few weeks? Wrong! It has been an agony of weekends, long nights and Thanksgiving holidays sacrificed to the demanding God of Exploration.

The God of Exploration! He has been benevolent to Viking and Voyager and Galileo and Pathfinder—and He has been cruel to Mars Observer and Mars Climate Observer. You have to sacrifice time, money, talent and ingenuity; he doesn’t provide safe passage to Mars for peanuts, you have to bleed and sacrifice a virgin or two.

… eight, seven, six …

Where are we and where are we going? All conversation ceases! All eyes lock onto the display of the spectrum analyzer. A green fuzzy-flat line lies horizontally across the range of radio frequencies expected from our departed kin.

… three, two, one …

Collective intake of breath. In moments we will shout joyfully to see a tiny needle-sharp peak of signal rise from that fuzzy-flat line to tell us that our dearly departed is dearly arrived, yet …

Yet now the possibility of failure congeals. Until NOW it was abstract and empty—was simply the dark underside of a probability cloud drifting far away.

Now! A nugget of information has propagated over fourteen minutes of light-travel-time from Mars to Earth, to the Deep Space Network, to this control room, to this display, to these eyes. Now. The probability cloud roils overhead, leaden black underbelly churning malevolently. A lightning stroke, abrupt and powerful, strikes nearby. Reality arrives.

The flat line remains flat-line. The nugget of information is the null bit, the absence of a needle-sharp peak, the lack of signal where signal is wanted.

Wait! Maybe the timing is off, maybe the receivers need tweaking, maybe the antenna is mis-pointed, maybe …

Silence. A downpour of cold wet reality begins, soaking the mind, depressing the soul. Dan Goldin’s face darkens; Ed Stone stares at the spectrum display. John McNamee gazes into space.

… five, six, seven …

Speculation begins in whispers. Maybe it’s in safing mode, maybe earth is temporarily out of sight, maybe …

There are a hundred possibilities. Over the next few days I will watch Richard Cook’s face filling TV screens, always optimistic, upbeat. There’s always one more thing to try—but I feel in my heart from that first moment, as do most of us assembled here, dearly beloved, that the roll of the dice has come up snake eyes. Our dearly departed has truly departed, smeared all over the landscape, or perhaps rolled into a ball at the foot of a steep slope, or perhaps …

There are many possibilities but only one actuality, which we may learn when the first human explorers eventually reach the forbidding southern climes of Mars. Meanwhile, we deal with failure—with breast-beating, investigation boards, program restructuring, launch cancellations …

And growth, and lessons learned, and a chance to do it better, because we WILL do it better, again and again, because we melt in the crucible of failure and mold to something better, but more fundamentally because we, as human beings, worship the God of Exploration and will sacrifice for the future.

Dearly beloved, give thanks for the future and bury the past. Where are we and where are we going? To Mars and beyond.


Farewell to Neptune

Here’s my OpEd piece in the L.A. Times 1989/11/25 titled “Music for a Stellar Generation.”
I’m no longer as optimistic about our prospects for colonizing the solar system and the stars as I was back then, twenty-six long years ago. As I said in a recent post, we have little need to be optimistic in the short run—I think we’ll have a series of disasters and recoveries—but the future is very bright indeed over the long haul of centuries, millennia, or even millions of years. After all, we’ve only been around as a species for a couple of million years on Earth; think what we’ll be like in a couple more!

Gustav Holst began writing “The Planets” in 1914. Its first performance, five years later, was a symphonic celebration of planets Mercury through Neptune (Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930). The music is beautiful and grand—but something is lacking. Despite its variety, there is no human adventure. The planets, in those days, were still “Gods”—remote, aloof in a separate, self-contained universe, hermetically sealed from human interaction or contamination. The solar system was a very large and inaccessible place for mortals.

Now another piece of music has played out: The last note of Voyager’s Neptune encounter fades into vacuum as the spacecraft departs our solar system, to be succeeded in the public mind by the discordance of the Bay Area earthquake and Eastern European upheavals. But we come not to bury Voyager; rather to praise. The brief encounter with Neptune was not an ending but a prelude yo a larger quest and a longer symphony.

After Voyager the Gods no longer reign. The planets belong to humankind.

The outer planets and their satellites were but tiny, pretty baubles in our skies before Voyager’s flight to Neptune and beyond. Now they are worlds in their own right, concrete and beautiful in their gargantuan presence.

Gustav Holst was born too early. How was he to know the adventure of the planets and man’s place among them? There was no way then to experience, even vicariously through the eyes of a Voyager, the pastoral solitude of interplanetary cruising; the rolling, thundering crescendo of planetary encounter.

I imagine him looking over our shoulders, following Voyager across the sky. NASA’s Goldstone antenna, a white leviathan creature in the center of an empty desert stage, glows in a fading twilight, hard bright stars overhead, the silence of the horizon dropping away into pink-gray distance. Why is it that this sight and silence seems so much like music? Gustav, are you listening? Can you hear the slow motion turning against the sky?

It’s time for a new musical genius to bring us a modern symphony of adventure among the planets, of man’s place among the Gods. Let us hear the chaos of departure from earth’s surly bonds, the basso profundo of planetary encounter. It’s time for that symphony, and I hope someone will write it because it is the beginning of a story of human drama of Wagnerian proportion. It will help to tell us where we are and where we’re going.

And where is that? “To the supermarket,” some will say. “My feet are firmly planted on Earth, and I’m going to work, I’m going home, I’m going to the hospital to visit a friend. I need to tend my garden.”

Worthy activities, but our children, or perhaps our grandchildren, are going to live in space. The urge to explore and expand is inborn. We are going, sooner or later, because we have no choice. Cast aside any debates about manned versus unmanned space exploration. They are irrelevant.

As a species, we will begin by colonizing the solar system.

We will break ourselves—bodies and spirits—on new shores, and we will regroup and plunge again, groping for dry land. Careers will be spent, lives lost in the quest. And the music will help us mend, and drive us forward again.

Many will not share our enthusiasm—will not want to assume hardships of pioneering. They are the equivalent of the Europeans who stayed behind, concerned with the problems of the Old World while explorers looked to the new.

Let them be. Very few will be able to go, anyhow. We will need their help, a large home base for support while we explore and settle, until we are independent. And what will explorers do for our homeland, our mother Earth at that time? Probably the same thing that the United States did for England in 1776. Children have no responsibility to their parents; only to the children that follow.

Voyager represents the beginning of a magic age. Its goodbye to Neptune is our hello to the solar system. The journey will begin with small steps: footprints on Mars, new ones on the moon. Every step will be hard-fought, but eventually we will inhabit most of the solar neighborhood. At that point, we’ll begin to get restless again—we’ll turn up our music and consider how to follow Voyager on her questing note, a trip to the stars.

Voyager at Neptune

This OpEd ran in the Sunday L. A. Times, 1989/08/06

Neptune! Almost 3 billion miles from earth. It’s a cold, impersonal place, a speck of a planet through even the largest telescope, but an enormous gas giant full of mysterious wonders when seen up close.

In a few more weeks we’re going to experience it up close, you and I. We will see it through the eyes of a solar diplomat: a traveler, explorer, adventurer, and representative of the human race; a large metal, plastic, silicon representative named Voyager.

When we arrive, what should we expect? The unexpected! That’s the lesson learned from previous visits to unexplored planets. Are there rings at Neptune like those at Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus? Possibly, but in incomplete arcs, unlike rings anywhere else. Are there other satellites, besides the already known Triton and Nereid? Yes! One has already been discovered, and there’s tantalizing evidence of more—perhaps many more, maybe even clouds of them — lurking just beneath the fuzz in the images painting the screens of video terminals at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In just days, now, they could rise to visibility above the electronic background noise.

Neptune has its own internal heat source, and radiates more energy than it receives from the sun. Why? Is this what drives its turbulent atmosphere, generating the large spots already found? Soon, we may know.

And Triton? We’ll find whether it has an atmosphere, and whether we can see through to the surface. Will there be pools of liquid nitrogen, or will gasses be frozen in slabs littering a desolate landscape of craters and mountains?

Among the answers to the questions we know to ask will be more questions we’ve not imagined—the unexpected!

When Voyager arrives at Neptune—on August 25th—it will be the first time since creation that anything human-made has been to that planet. We should enjoy, appreciate, and celebrate the event, since it will also likely be the last time it will happen during our lives.

That’s because a very special arrangement of the solar system, one that occurs only about every 175 years, was required to allow Voyager to make the trip in “only” twelve years. It had to go by Jupiter first, making a hard left turn in that planet’s gravity to pick up energy in a crack-the-whip fashion to go on to the next planet. That was Saturn, which turned it left again, gave it more energy, and pointed it towards Uranus. At Uranus, in 1986, it picked up still more energy and made course for Neptune. Since then it has been “cruising” at ten miles per second toward the planet. At Neptune it will skim over the north pole three thousand miles above the atmosphere, turn downward so that it’s headed south out of the solar system, and make a final encounter with Neptune’s largest satellite, Triton, before beginning a larger interstellar voyage.

The science at Neptune is important, but think also about the voyage, the adventure. Knowledge is good for the human mind, but travel is food for the psyche. And Voyager’s travels have been and will be prodigious. It has been on its way from earth since 1977, wending a crooked path through the outer solar system. Now, in a handful of days, it makes its final rendezvous, a close brush and embrace with Neptune, before flying out of the solar system to begin an odyssey through the Milky Way galaxy; an unattended, lonely voyage that may last from millions to billions of years.

Towards the beginning of that longer journey, a mere few hundred thousand years in the future, our sun will have become a faint, uninteresting star in Voyager’s eternally night sky. But no one will be with the spacecraft to appreciate that fact, and our ambassador will slowly tumble—sightless, senseless, and alone —in an immensely empty void.

A fellow engineer on the navigation team claims that the spacecraft will be on display in the Smithsonian Museum 200 years from now. He thinks that by then we’ll have both the technology and wherewithal to go out, find and catch Voyager, and bring it back. I’d like to think we would be able to do that, but if I’m still around I’ll vote to leave it alone. There’s something wonderful about the thought that a piece of ourselves is somewhere out there on a winding journey between the stars on its way to eternity. It’s like having immortal children.

So this is an adventure, and we’re all on board. The solar system is our playground, and after that—the stars! There are hazards ahead—for example, unseen ring particles orbiting Neptune could smack into us, prematurely ending Voyager’s life—but we’ll probably make it through to see the wonders of Neptune and Triton.

Then will begin the grander voyage—the one that requires us to be romantics instead of realists; dreamers rather than schemers: Even though Voyager will go blind and deaf after a few tens of years; even though it will die an electronic death, it will still have the germ of human creativity and daring incorporated into its very structure. It carries two messages—an explicit one in the form of a golden record, and an implicit one stated by its profoundly improbable existence. And both messages will say to the finder, in essence, “I am from the planet earth. I am of the human race. We are small and insignificant, but our souls are large because we have set out on a journey to know the universe.”