Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Overview

There’s never been a better time to be an armchair astronaut. forget this planet. The economy is terrible,
global warming is inevitable, and there are at least eight major wars happening right now. That’s why Kessler left home and moved to Mars. Well, not all the way to Mars. The closest spot on earth you can get without a rocket. in the summer of 2008, he lived a space dream, spending three months in mission control of The Phoenix expedition with 130 top NASA scientists and ...

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Overview

There’s never been a better time to be an armchair astronaut. forget this planet. The economy is terrible,
global warming is inevitable, and there are at least eight major wars happening right now. That’s why Kessler left home and moved to Mars. Well, not all the way to Mars. The closest spot on earth you can get without a rocket. in the summer of 2008, he lived a space dream, spending three months in mission control of The Phoenix expedition with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored Mars. This story is a human drama about modern-day Magellans battling NASA politics—you haven’t lived until you’ve seen this miracle of birth from the inside—and the bizarre world of daily life in mission control. Kessler was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to such an event, giving us a true Mars exclusive.

The Phoenix Mars mission was the first man-made probe ever sent to the Martian arctic. They planned to find out how climate change can turn a warm wet planet (read: Earth) into a cold barren desert (read: Mars).
That might seem like a trivial pursuit, but it’s probably the most impressive feat we humans can achieve. It takes nearly the entirety of human knowledge to do it. This is only the sixth landing on Mars. Along the way, Phoenix discovered a giant frozen ocean trapped beneath the north pole of Mars, exotic food for aliens and liquid water. This is not science fiction. It’s fact. Not bad for a summer holiday.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Readers will thrill to this slightly offbeat firsthand account of scientific determination and stubborn intellect. Kessler, producer of a Discovery Channel documentary on Mars and the self-professed winner of "the space-nerd lottery," was allowed to shadow the 2009 Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which would make the groundbreaking discovery of water and ice on Mars. A product of NASA's 1990s "faster, cheaper, better" mantra, Phoenix had none of the space program's usual bells and whistles, with a recycled lander and a mission control with a decided "church basement aesthetic." But there was free ice cream. Offered this unique opportunity, Kessler felt some self-doubt and had trouble adjusting to a work schedule set by the long Mars days. But along with his own witty personality, he captures the lively scientists behind the project, from Peter Smith, "world's greatest Martian Photographer," to Matt Robinson, a robot arm expert. Kessler also captures the frustrations and triumphs of a project in which a 15-minute communications lag between Mars and Earth meant anything could go wrong. This behind-the-scenes look delivers a fascinating journey of discovery peppered with humor. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Hoping to rekindle public interest in space research, the principal investigator of the Phoenix mission tapped Kessler, who coproduced the Discovery Channel's Mars: The Quest for Life, to tell the human story behind unmanned Mars exploration. The result is a fascinating, quirky, and humorous look inside the alternate universe of mission control, where everybody is sleep deprived from working on Martian time and employees carry bottles of their urine in Trader Joe's shopping bags. Kessler, a keen observer of social and political dynamics, reveals the conflicting mindsets and priorities of engineers, scientists, and NASA management; scientific rivalries; and even the genesis of a space conspiracy theory. VERDICT Although Steven Squyres's Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet remains the ultimate insider account of a Mars mission, this book will interest space buffs as well as current and future engineers.—Nancy Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
Kirkus Reviews

An inside look at a Mars mission.

Kessler, who co-produced a Discovery Channel feature on the quest for life on Mars, was chosen to chronicle the 2008 Phoenix lander's 90 days around the red planet's north pole, with daily access to the earth-side scientists running the experiments. The mission was to search for evidence of water and organic chemistry, two prerequisites for determining whether life exists (or ever did) on Mars. The author credits the idea to mission leader Peter Smith, who thought a popular account of the discoveries and the scientists behind them would help inspire a new generation to enter space science. The book may instead serve to weed out those with insufficient passion for the enterprise, portraying as it does all the bureaucratic tangles, internal squabbles and technical glitches of the mission—not to mention trying to adjust to the Martian clock, with days 40 minutes longer than our own creating something like a perpetual jet lag. Another ongoing problem was the media's yearning for spectacular breakthroughs, which led to distorted coverage and predisposed many of the scientists to be suspicious of Kessler. Still, the author provides some fascinating glimpses of the real work of a space mission: planning activities for the lander, dealing with peremptory orders from NASA and JPL, interpreting the sometimes ambiguous data and occasionally letting one's hair down for a party. The mission spent several weeks trying to satisfy NASA's peremptory call for an ice sample, when both the robot arm and the onboard analytical equipment were acting up. At another point, two researchers feuded violently when one claimed to have detected liquid water on the surface—which, according to theory, should be impossible. (The discovery eventually held up, and was published.) Unfortunately, Kessler projects a needy, insecure persona, fretting over being excluded from meetings and reacting jealously when another journalist was allowed into the project. This gets old quickly, as does some of the jargon that creeps in.

Fascinating subject, less-than-stellar treatment—though die-hard space fans will find enough to keep the pages turning.

Mike Brown
…an informative and even charming semi-insider account of how such a mission operates, how humans fare on Mars time, and how scientists and administrators behave under extreme stress.
&#151The Washington Post
Peter Smith
“It is as if I imagined Holden Caulfield writing about the mission. Martian Summer is a riot.”
Nilton Renno
“Martian Summer gives the feel of the pressure and excitement at mission control, while showing the human side of science with refreshing honesty.”
From the Publisher
“An informative and even charming semi-insider account of how such a mission operates, how humans fare on Mars time, and how scientists and administrators behave under extreme stress.”—The Washington Post
 
“Readers will thrill to this slightly offbeat firsthand account of scientific determination and stubborn intellect. . . . This behind-the-scenes look delivers a fascinating journey of discovery peppered with humor.” —Publishers Weekly

“A candid and precise account of the ups and downs of a space mission. This book shows what it is to participate in a short and intense landed Mars expedition.  It gives the feel of the pressure and excitement at mission control, where engineers, managers and scientists work together while trying to satisfy contradictory requirements, showing the human side of science with refreshing honesty.” —Nilton Renno, professor of atmospheric and space sciences, University of Michigan

“It is as if I imagined Holden Caulfield writing about the mission. Martian Summer is a riot.” —Peter Smith, professor, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, and principal investigator of the Phoenix project
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781605981765
  • Publisher: Pegasus
  • Publication date: 4/15/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Kessler is the former creative director at Campfire Productions (The Blair Witch Project). He co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life on the Discovery Channel and holds a degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note vii

Acknowledgments x

Part I The Phoenix of Tucson 1

Chapter 1 First-Day Jitters 9

Chapter 2 The Clod 31

Chapter 3 Control Room 41

Chapter 4 Cloddy with a Chance of Sprinkles 49

Chapter 5 Red Haze 60

Chapter 6 Special Mars Pill 74

Chapter 7 Wonderland 84

Chapter 8 The Lost Day 97

Chapter 9 Missing Pieces 108

Part II Red Planet Blues 119

Chapter 10 I, for One, Welcome our NASA Overlords 127

Chapter 11 Arm Up. Stand Down 145

Chapter 12 All the Landers, Independent 153

Chapter 13 Down and Out in the SOC 160

Chapter 14 In a Scrape 168

Chapter 15 Powers of Ten 174

Chapter 16 Nilton's Nodules 179

Chapter 17 An Enemy Among Us 191

Chapter 18 Nilton's Nodules (Round II) 196

Chapter 19 Feel My Rasp 204

Chapter 20 Martian Colds 208

Chapter 21 There is No Try 213

Chapter 22 Don't Be a Rasp Hole 218

Chapter 23 Ice Delivery, Take Two 226

Chapter 24 Mars Man Forever 229

Chapter 25 The Third Time 233

Chapter 26 Press Conference 237

Part III It's Dry Freeze 241

Chapter 27 Tinfoil Hats 245

Chapter 28 Oy Covault 249

Chapter 29 Full Release 253

Chapter 30 Shove the Regolith Back in the Lander 262

Chapter 31 That's the Planet I Saw on TV 273

Chapter 32 Forty Minutes Back 278

Chapter 33 Scooped 281

Chapter 34 Two Days Forward, One Sol Back 292

Chapter 35 Paralyzed Ops 302

Chapter 36 The Dude Abides 311

Chapter 37 Stiff Joints 319

Chapter 38 Salty Liquid Water Tears 322

Chapter 39 Sol Searching 325

Glossary 333

Index 335

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