The celebration on live TV in the Mars Science Lab aka "Curiosity" control room made for a vivid illustration of the difference between the regular kind of relief, joy, and disappointment we've been seeing every day among athletes and their fans as games unfold in London, and the concussive relief that can be felt in real life. You know, rescue efforts during mine disasters, a deal that goes through on which a company's very existence and all its jobs depend, a battle won, and a billion dollar mission to another world that is wickedly complicated to run and around which an army of very smart people have been planning their lives for years. Seeing these scientists and engineers leap to their feet, some in tears of relief, others in pure dancing joy, hugging or collapsing, was to envy people who just went through life-shaking fear and came out released into pure joy. So far so good anyway. Media are going nuts over first images, including that instant classic shot from an orbiter with the parachute drifting down, the rover and its skycrane rocket hovering winch platform hanging beneath. Mission control not only watched their machine follow orders perfectly, somebody cracked a whip over the control room's occupants too. Everybody got the memo about shirts - blue polos. Usually, JPL's geeks dress the part. They looked sharp.
Your tracker is really turned on by this mission. I'm in Tucson, self-dubbed astronomy capital of the world, where a lot of astronomy popularizers, outreach officers, 'amateurs' and educators met (Astronomical Society of the Pacific). I told them about promise and peril of a less-intense sort: science journalism's state and future. More important, last night Phil Christensen, major-league planetologist and Mars specialist at Arizona State University, delivered to the meeting's participants and a good sprinkling of the local public a cracker jack history of Mars astronomy and space exploration. He whizzed through bronze age Mars-war gods, canals, and Mariner 9. He wound up depicting Gale Crater where the buggy now sits intact near the edge of an 18,000-foot high mound called Mount Sharp as the most interesting darned place on the planet. The internal mound nearly fills the monster crater. Its history is hard to figure (how'd it get higher than the crater walls?). No, back up, I lied. It's the second most interesting place. on Mars. Actually, Christensen said what he really wants during his lifetime is a rover looking over the edge, in HiDef, of Valles Marineris, the canyon four miles deep and whose immensity could fit the whole Grand Canyon into one of its teenier offshoots. But Mount Sharp, pretty cool.
If you want to see whiz-bang digitally morphed and labeled fly-over animated imagery of Mount Sharp and Curiosity's planned route, there is a stunning "Mars Vista" segment NASA public affairs has put up in a huge file. It is more than worth downloading. The image with this post is a snip off it.
One wishes there were a way to capture all the media attention this landing has attracted. My goodness, even Rush Limbaugh, whom I encountered on the radio dial while traversing the desert between here and Phoenix in a rented Corolla. Before I was able to reach to scan on I realized he was waxing giddy about news from Mars. Other than a shot at the President, who he says gutted NASA's budget (which has been flat, aka gutted, through several administrations), he for once had nothing acid to say about hardly anything. This is nearly bipartisan celebration. Other than the successful placement of this machine right where it was intended to be there is no science news yet of course. That'll take months, maybe years, as the Rover drives around on its plutonium thermal battery's power. Here follows some of the coverage, with as much diversity as I can find in this hotel room with its feeble WiFi and no sign of the ethernet outlet the place says it has. These are more or less randomly as encountered. One guesses that the emotional few moments of the landing may be getting more coverage than anything the machine does from here on out. We'll see.
- Christian Science Monitor - Pete Spotts: Search for life: Mars rover's target crater a 'geologist's paradise' (+ video) ; Oh Pete (or oh headline writer), the machine is not looking for life, exactly. It is looking for extant or past habitats where life might reside. It has no DNA sequencers on board. Why not I dunno, but it does not. Story gets it right - it is looking for hospitable places.
- LA Times - Scott Gold: Curiosity rover hit the perfect spot on Mars, scientists say ; Also see Amina Khan: Curiosity geologist looks at Mars, finds eerie reminders of Earth; Written before the landing, but is a good profile of the main man charting the rover's path.
- Washington Post - Marc Kauffman: With NASA Mars rover Curiosity safely on surface, time to take inventory ; John Holdren is a fine choice for science adviser, but his quote here ought not go so unchallenged. He boasts about US space leadership. Rightly so, the US is still tops. But even in this happy moment, and even though Kauffman surely has reported it before, a small and prompt aside would be good. Holdren's chest-thumping seems pure politics, not the remark of a man of science. Kauffman does touch on NASA's serious budget problems deeper. NASA's Mars and general planetary program has been drastically deprived of much else to do for quite a long time. Triumphalism is premature. Before getting to a good roundup of what's in store for Curiosity, Kauffman writes that if things go well, perhaps the cuts will be scaled back.
- NYTimes - Kenneth Chang: After Safe Landing, Rover Sends Images From Mars ; Chang chooses the right cliche (nothing disparaging intended in its cliche-ness): the landing has gone picture perfect. There was the perfect picture of the 'chute, then the perfect picture of Mount Sharp on the near horizon, and the perfect first image, showing a wheel on red (well, in black and white) soil. There have been nerve-wracking landings on Mars before. The inflated airbag balls bouncing along with two Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity in them. The Phoenix lander near the poles. Of course, the Vikings in '76. And the UK's agony when its lander, Beagle 2, just plain disappeared into the atmosphere with nary a subsequent peep. But this one tops them all.
- CNN - Thom Patterson: Mars rover: Is all this really necessary? ; Patterson is a sci-tech-gadget-what's cool writer, with an impudent style. Here's his stuff lately. So just as I get all puffed up over this new lander he comes in with a sly nudge that it's not all THAT cool and what we really need is some people up there in space suits and with rock hammers wedged into their fat-fingered gloves. He quotes a Cornell man, a good researcher, who agrees with that. He could have found a LOT more of that fellow's colleagues who'd rather have a few dozen robots up there than one person - which with the latter need for things like fresh underwear and oxygen and a warm bed, would cost perhaps the same.
- AP - Alicia Chang: NASA rover Curiosity lands on Mars after plummet ; and just in, NASA's new rover sends back 1st color image, video ; That being a video, low res but to engineers a thriller, of the last few minutes of the landing sequence as seen from the lander itself. I think this stop-motion sequence is what she's talking about.
- Reuters - Irene Klotz, Steve Gorman: Mars rover landing "miracle of engineering," scientists say ; Actually, one man said that, the same top guy and geologist that Khan at the LA Times profiled a few bullets up. I'll be a crank for just a moment. Crank because nothing I say will ever prevent the press or anybody else from ebulliently abusing language. Engineering is not miracles. Doing dynamic analyses and calculating mass allowances and tolerances and battery performance are not miracles, they are the opposite. They are what one does when not counting upon divine intervention. The results do look awfully miraculous sometimes to the lay eye to be sure.
- Guardian (UK) Ian Sample, James Randerson: Curiosity rover Mars landing - as it happened ; A gathering of tweets, blogs, remarks, and other samplings from social and other media. The Guardian's Alok Jha also hosts a conversation by the science staff: Science Weekly podcast: Curiosity rover touches down on Mars ;
- Telegraph (UK) Michael Hanlon: Nasa Curiosity landing: there's new life on Mars / Curiosity's successful landing has saved Nasa's space programme from extinction, and will be a giant step in our understanding of the Red Planet ;
- Scientific American - Larry Greenemeier: Curiosity Gears Up to Zap Rocks in Huge Crater at Red Planet ;
- National Geographic - Richard Lovett: Curiosity Mars-Rover Landing:"Everything Worked Perfectly" ;
- Telegraph (India) Ganapati Mudur: Indian hand in Mars landing (which Mudur calls a "feeble local angle" in a msg to us, but it's just fine) and Most daunting landing in history, says Anita ; for this second piece, Mudur called back to reach the young woman he profiled in the first one for a review of the landing.
- Could go on all day, but with apologies to all those reporters whose coverage merits attention here but didn't get it...
Grist for the Mill: NASA-JPL Mars Page.
- Charlie Petit