surviving seven minutes of martian terror

June 27, 2012

Since humans first realized that the strange points of light in the night sky lay beyond this planet, there were a lot of dreamers who talked of how one day we would soar among the stars and travel to other worlds. And for the vast majority of recorded history, they were in the minority as many others grumbled that the challenges of leaving the Earth are simply too great to overcome. If you lived at that time, you would’ve probably joined them as well. I mean, consider what sending a probe to another world entails. You balance your device on top of an enormous metal tube filled with flammable, toxic liquids and solids, send it up on a controlled explosion for a few hundred miles, gently detach your probe with explosive bolts (since "gentle" and "explosives" go together so well), send it barreling through the inky blackness of space for millions of miles, using the position of little pinpricks of light to stay on course, whip around your target world, and then go from 17,000 mph or more to a soft, precise landing in a zone a few miles across. No sweat, right? Well, rocket scientists beg to differ…

No wonder landing on Mars is called Seven Minutes of Terror. Not only are you threading the cosmic needle a couple of hundred million miles from home, you’re also trying to control an event akin to a meteor impact with tiny rockets and have no way of knowing whether you’ve succeeded or failed until it’s all been over for 14 slow, agonizing minutes. Quite frankly, it’s amazing that we have the math and technology to even think about going to another planet, much less successfully doing it again and again. And to think that in an age when we send robots to explore other worlds on a relatively routine basis, there are people who think this is just a big waste of time, money, and effort, forgetting that it’s these kinds of endeavors that defined human civilization, not a rat race through stock markets, or how many shopping malls we build, or how many channels we get on a cable box with a DVR. Thankfully, despite the pathological short-sightedness and lack of vision of those who ended up holding the purse strings for space agencies, we’re still flying into space, we’re still exploring, and we talk about the Seven Minutes of Terror from practical experience rather than conjecture. And if we have to endure a few minutes of anxious agony to keep exploring, I say it’s worth every minute of anticipation.

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  • hybrid web

    Do you think that we’ll be able to overcome the “pathological short-sightedness” any time soon? Because that same pathological short-sightedness applies to much of Western civilization these days.

    Pathological short-sightedness –> Symptom of pathetic leadership in Western democracies

    Pathetic leadership –> re-emergence of failed political systems of yesteryear (i.e. “socialism”)

    Pathetic leadership –> failure to address todays real problems (why is there still so much poverty in Africa, let alone at home)

    Pathetic leadership –> collapse of society.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Benjamin Franklin answered the nay-sayers to this sort of exploration a long time ago, when men first began ascending to the skies in balloons.

    “It’s very spectacular, but what possible use is it?” (female spectator)

    “Madam, of what use is a newborn infant?” (Franklin)

  • Brett

    Mars sounds like an incredibly perverse planet for landing spacecraft, which no doubt explains why so many Mars robotic missions have failed. Just enough atmosphere for it to be a problem that has to be dealt with, but not enough atmosphere so that it actually becomes very useful for landing the probes.

    This also supports my belief that we need in-orbit propellant depots, and not just around Earth. With one of those in orbit around Mars, a spacecraft could do an in-orbit rendezvous, and then use that fuel to greatly slow down for an easier entry and landing.

    Thankfully, despite the pathological short-sightedness and lack of vision of those who ended up holding the purse strings for space agencies, we’re still flying into space, we’re still exploring, and we talk about the Seven Minutes of Terror from practical experience rather than conjecture.

    We’re still exploring, although not without difficulty. The Mars missions on paper will take the brunt of the Planetary Science budget cuts if those don’t get reversed, which is a huge disappointment. I just hope that the Mars Science Laboratory manages to land without disaster.

    Those budget limitations really suck. The whole mission only cost about $2 billion. We ought to be constantly building and sending about four or five such missions (not necessarily all to Mars, but on that level).