An unusual sense of ownership

The NY Times ran an article on Tuesday that puts words to something that had occurred to me last weekend, entitled Eager NASA Is Bringing Mars Down to Earth. Particularly in the blogosphere, but also in the newspapers and in conversations I’ve had with other folks, people are really taking an active interest in the Mars rovers, and it’s not something that’s significantly fading after Day 1.

No, Mr. Caron, a 19-year-old college freshman, does not work for NASA, despite his use of the first-person pronoun. But he is one of many Americans and others around the world expressing an unusual sense of ownership in the space agency’s current Mars mission.

The flow of updates from Mars has led to a new addiction among some Americans, who find themselves checking for news dozens of times a day. In interviews, many reported feeling depression and withdrawal symptoms when the Spirit stopped communicating last week.

The article rightly, I think, points out that the root cause of the wave of interest is NASA’s decision to make available just about all the data they receive from the rovers. That information is allowing people to do their own calculation about Opportunity’s landing site location, create their own virtual reality panoramas, process their own images, and even analyze the color spectrum of the cameras.

When Spirit’s communication problems first developed, friends started emailing me with condolences and encouragement. Never mind that my responsibilities for any MER hardware ended over a year ago. Never mind that these friends’ eyes glaze over whenever I mention any details from work. It was enough that I’m associated with that Mars thing in their minds, and they felt involved, too.

I gotta say, this is all really, really nice. When we lost Mars Climate Orbiter due to the units mixup, I didn’t want to go out in public. I got teased relentlessly about the waste of all that money. Then when Mars Polar Landed failed shortly thereafter, everyone predicted the demise of Faster, Better, Cheaper and even cutbacks in robotic space exploration. But it looks like managers are actually useful. The changes in project management and a willingness to adequately fund difficult projects seems to have paid off. Now, the JPL and MER web sites have received over 4 billion hits from 32 million people. Let’s hope that all this enthusiasm and interest is not irresponsibly used or ignored. Whatever form the future of NASA’s space exploration takes, I hope we continue to generate this feeling of ownership by such a large slice of the country, and heck, even world-wide.