JRC discusses his role in the launch of the Phoenix Mars Lander.

On the Phoenix Mars Lander

JRC standing in front of the wrought-iron gates of the Percival Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona (Image courtesy of Suparna Ghosh)

A group of us felt a special sense of elation the evening of Sunday, May 25, 2008, when the Phoenix Mars Lander effected its soft-landing on the surface of Mars. This craft, the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, voyaged without incident across 423 million miles of inter-planetary space from the Cape Canaveral on planet Earth to the Red Planet, and then descended by parachute and then thrusters to a region that rather resembles our own Northwest Territories. On schedule it began to transmit a stream of data back to Earth. Some of the information was generated by the craft’s meteorological station, the Canadian Space Agency’s contribution to the Mars mission.

View of the deck of the Mars Lander,”Visions of Mars” DVD Plaque (foreground), plains of the Red Planet (background). (Image courtesy of the Planetary Society, Pasadena, California)

It is doubtful that Canadian people felt much collective pride in this U.S. technological achievement, despite the brave, patriotic words of Jim Prentice, the Minister of Industry. “Seeing the Canada word-mark on Mars should be a source of pride for all Canadians,” he exclaimed. “In fact, Canada is making such great strides in space technology that we’ll truly be on the world’s radar screen for years to come. Not only have we designed this meteorological station, but also communications satellites, earth observation satellites, robotics, and we’re attracting the best and brightest space experts from around the world.”

NASA’s press releases acknowledged CSA’s contribution; CSA’s press releases drew attention to its own meteorological station, but they failed to note the one other notable contribution of Canadians to this endeavour. There was the labour of our scientists who developed the meteorological station with its “Canada wordmark.” There is also the contribution of additional “intellectual property” by a group of four Canadian enthusiasts.

I am one of the four, a bit player in a larger drama that involved three stars: space artist Jon Lomberg, science-fiction personality Judith Merril, and special-collection librarian Lorna Toolis. Our association on this project came about through the agency the late Carl Sagan of the Planetary Society of Pasadena, California, who engaged Jon, at the time a Toronto resident, to design the plaque to affix to the Mars 96 Lander. Jon enlisted the volunteer contributions of Judy, well respected for her science fiction, and Lorna of the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection of fantastic literature, and me, the first anthologist of Canadian fantastic literature.

A veteran in the field of “plaque design,” Jon devised the marker that was attached to the Voyager Interstellar Record. It was launched in 1972 and is the sole, man-made object to leave the Solar System and voyage into interstellar space. To this day it continues on its journey to the distant stars. In a sense, Jon designed the Earth’s only immortal work of art. All things being equal, his design will outlast the anticipated lifetime of the planet Earth itself.

Image of the Phoenix Mars Lander Plaque (Image courtesy the Planetary Society, Pasadena, California)

The Voyager’s “record” was an actual 33.3-inch audio and video recording that included a limited amount of data about the sights and sounds of Earth. It might be compared with the cornerstone of a building which includes information about its time, place, and purpose. Two decades later, advances in recording technology made it possible to attach a DVD with enhanced data memory to any craft, whether lander or rover. Jon developed four features for the disk: “Radio Mars,” mainly the audio of Orson Welles’ famous “panic broadcast” about the invasion of the Martians; a gallery of contemporary “space art” (artists of the past and the present like Chesley Bonestell imagine the appearance of the surface of Mars); interviews with prominent personalities in the field, notably Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Judith Merril in Toronto); and, impressively, “Science Fiction Mars,” an anthology of works of fiction by writers from around the world who imagined life on Mars “before contact” and “after contact.”

Judy’s statement, delivered on camera, is a masterpiece of expression and compassion. It begins, “Human cultures and consciousness on Earth evolved in many languages from widely scattered and vastly varied enclaves: some broiling hot, some bitter cold, some desert-dry or drenched with rain …. ” It continues, “But the earliest legends of each and every unique culture show that we were all, from the beginning, gazing in awe at the night skies, imagining ourselves, somehow descended from those wondrous lights, looking at them for blessings, fearing their displeasure, hoping somehow, some day, to ascend once more to the brightness of the stars.”

When she read her statement to me over the telephone, I replied, “Judy, you were born to write those very words.” Quick as a whip she responded, “That means you either like it – or you hate it!” I assured her that I liked it, immensely. Indeed, I included her statement as the final item in Colombo’s All-Time Great Canadian Quotations.

My task was to develop a list of Mars-based fiction by the world’s most imaginative writers and then supply the texts of these stories and novels and introduce them. The first work to be included was the entire text of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Then came H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Sixty stories and novels later, I was delighted to include – and conclude – with a short story that had long been a favourite of mine. “The Enchanted Village” is its name and it was written by the Manitoba-born science-fiction writer A.E. van Vogt. His astonishing tale tells how the sole Earthling to survive the first manned landing on Mars is able to subsist, given Mars’s unforgiving climate, by physically and psychologically turning into a Martian! I felt the story was prophesying what would happen to human beings as the consequence of the exploration of space through art and technology. In fact, Judy dubbed all the prose we collected our “Mishna to Mars.”

Visions of Mars was the title chosen by Carl Sagan for the DVD, and he described it “the gift of Earth to Mars” and as “the first Martian library.” It was produced to NASA’s specifications and duly affixed to the Russian Mars 96 Lander (a forerunner of the present craft). In 1996 that lander was blasted into space from Baikonur cosmodrome, the Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan, and then disaster struck. The spacecraft was bound for Mars but instead of soaring into interstellar space, it fell back onto Earth and crashed into the South Pacific Ocean. The Planetary Society sought an agreement from NASA that a future probe would ferry the plaque to the Red Planet.

Jon was philosophical about the loss. “It has been a lesson in persistence rewarded, because it’s been sixteen years since I started working on this. Then the Russian mission failed to make orbit and wound up at the bottom of the ocean. You work for years and years on something and it’s over in a second and there’s no Plan B. If your spacecraft fails, that’s it. So I kind of wrote it off, thinking what a shame it never got to Mars. That’s one of the worst parts of space exploration and everyone who’s in this business knows this. So it takes a lot of optimism and willingness to confront that risk.”

NASA rose to the occasion and fastened the refurbished Visions of Mars to the top of the deck of the Phoenix Mars Lander, which alighted safely on the tundra of Mars on a Sunday evening like any other Sunday evening on Earth, except that on Mars it marks an event of near-epochal significance in the future history of the Red Planet. If there are Martians, they may enjoy reading our collection of science fiction. If there are no Martians, future Earthlings who may well become residents of Mars, may be entertained and enlightened by reading the prose. In either case, our “library” will be there for a long, long time.

Voyaging to Mars and the other planets of our Solar System, even if vicariously, has been one of mankind’s earliest and fondest desires. Today it is being realized. As Sagan wrote in his book Cosmos, “In our time we have shifted the sands of Mars, we have established a presence there, we have fulfilled a century of dreams!”

In the darkness of interplanetary space, that pale blue dot is the planet Earth. And that tiny red dot is the planet Mars. Because of our work on the marker, which is now a permanent feature on the Martian landscape, the tiny red dot visible in the dark night sky of Earth brings to mind – to my mind at least – the red of that most enduring of Canadian symbols – the russet-coloured Maple Leaf.

27 May 2008

View of the Constellation of Orion from the Hubble Space Telescope
(Image courtesy of NASA and William Andersen)

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