Red Rover, Red Rover

by rthieme on February 12, 1997

Red Rover, Red Rover

published in Internet Underground, February-Match 1997

“whoever you are

wherever you are

it is time to go into the world,

leaving your comfortable room,

your home, every corner of which you know —

your home is the last way-station

before eternity.”

Rainer-Maria Rilke

When Americans landed on the moon, the earth was given a new perceptual framework, with two primary points of reference. The first was a view of the earth from the moon, enabling us to see our planet whole. The second was our vicarious participation through television in the landing.

The way we frame reality determines our belief in what is possible. The translation of lunar exploration into a media event enabled us to construct a new future for ourselves. No longer the stuff of science fiction, we now knew that our children and grandchildren would colonize space.

In 1975, the Viking lander sent signals across the void of space from the Martian surface. The first signals painted a narrow band on our television monitors that gradually thickened until it became a reddish sky.

The rock-strewn, wind-blown Martian landscape looked like Nevada. The sweep of the terrain was an open invitation.

My heart rose to my throat. I was seized with yearning.

I want to go! I want to go to Mars!

But the exploration of space diminished as funding declined. The problems of our home planet preoccupied us. My dreams of hiking that Martian desert were dashed.

Until now. Now we can go to Mars. We can all go to Mars.

Our vehicle is the Internet.

Three Martian missions were recently launched. The Russian Mars orbiter, intended to deploy landers, was aborted when the launch vehicle failed and fell into the ocean.

The United States launched Mars Global Surveyor in November and Mars Pathfinder in December. The latter will arrive first because of a shorter flight path and is scheduled to touch down in Ares Vallis on July 4, 1997.

Pathfinder will glide through the thin Martian atmosphere on a parachute and deploy a huge cluster of air bags to ensure a soft landing. A Martian rover will roll out into that desert like R2D2 on oversized wheels.

The rover is a robot named Sojourner, named after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) held a year-long, world-wide competition among students. Sojourner Truth, an African-American woman who traveled all across America advocating rights for women, gave her name to the rover.

Sojourner will be a mobile outpost of the Internet. Pictures broadcast back to earth will be posted in real time as they arrive, twenty to forty minutes after the signals leave Mars. Conspiracy buffs to the contrary, the live feed from Mars will not be filtered. Even if someone is jumping up and down in front of her cameras, I was told by Kennedy Space Center, Web users will see what Sojourner sees as she crawls over the rocks and sand.

Mars on the Internet has two dimensions.

The physical exploration of Mars is the first. Sojourner will be our eyes and hands as we sample the Martian desert, a telerobotic sensory extension of human beings disseminating her digital data over the Internet.

The other project is more complex. Just as television from the moon became the occasion of a contextual shift for all humankind, the exploration of space on the Internet is altering the way we construct reality. The intentional use of the Internet by NASA is part of a larger design to ensure support for planetary exploration. Current activity on the Net reflects a convergence of the mutual self-interest of government, industry, and the educational establishment as they mobilize the resources of the entire world.

First, the physical.

The Internet is a sensory extension of the physical exploration of Mars. Sojourner will let us look through her lenses and see what she sees. The first pictures are due on earth about 5:00 p.m. PST on the Fourth of July. Pictures will be updated hourly.

Those who have tried to download a new version of a browser as soon as it’s released might question the wisdom of inviting an entire planet to this virtual party. Isn’t there a potential problem with bandwidth?

“The servers at JPL would be overwhelmed,” acknowledged Cheick Diarra, who administers the Internet dimension of the Mars missions for JPL. “We’re creating mirror sites all over the world. We think we can accommodate everyone who wants to come to Mars.”

The Rover will also become a weather station, sending data on temperature and wind velocity. News and weather from Mars will be available live on the Net every day.

“We won’t be providing chemical data,” Diarra added. “The raw data would be subject to misunderstanding. We don’t want people to jump to the wrong conclusions before the data is analyzed and interpreted.”

Wrong conclusions? Such as … looking at a microscopic tubular structure in a meteorite from Mars and concluding that there was life on the red planet? Such as making that dramatic announcement a dozen years after the rock was discovered, just as Sojourner is about to be launched?

A coincidence, says NASA. But there is no mistaking how NASA has amplified the remote possibility that the tube is a real fossil to beat the drums for Red Rover.

MARSBUGS is an electronic exobiology newsletter. Its headline — “Life in the Universe: What is the Message from Martian Fossils?” — was typical of the way the Internet magnified the announcements about the meteorite.

True, the fine print always stated the announcement was speculative, that the micro-formation was merely “not dissimilar” to microfossils found on earth but not necessarily identical. That didn’t stop the momentum from building.

NASA has to do everything “faster, cheaper, quicker” these days. Leveraging scarce resources is part of a new business plan. That plan has five parts:

(1) dissemination of knowledge

(2) support for exploration

(3) education through formal and informal means

(4) inspiration

(5) technology development and transfer

If you can’t think it, you can’t believe it, and it’s hard to think something without concrete images. Those images — especially if they present archetypal images like spirals, luminous nurseries for new stars, and exploding suns — attract our projections as magnets attract iron filings. We need to project our search for meaning onto concrete forms. The Mars program is the perfect new frontier for a weary planet now that the Great Mythic Battle between Good and Evil symbolized in the Cold War is over.

Hubble’s Greatest Hits on the Internet provide concrete images of possibility. They bring the universe into closer focus. Surfing those powerful images illustrates how the Internet is contracting space-time and expanding our horizons at lightspeed.

The latest photos from the Orion nebula, for example, show more than 700 embryonic stars with proto-planetary discs and 153 solar systems in the process of formation. They map our neighborhood in new ways.

Christopher Columbus was a mapmaker before he was a voyager.

Making maps is one way of transforming what is “out there” into a set of internal possibilities. The process of clicking from image to image — colliding galaxies, the far reaches of the universe magnified by gravitational lenses from galactic clusters — is mapmaking and makes us vicarious voyagers who want to follow those maps into the real territory.

NASA knows this and makes available on the Net “morphing movies” that transform the Santa Maria into the space shuttle Columbia and the Jules Verne moon rocket into the 1969 lunar craft.

The Internet is being used to enroll the next generation in the great adventure. Teachers and classrooms all over the world are incorporated into NASA’s plans. Naming the rover is one example. The use of the Internet for a global workshop simulating the Mars mission is another.

“It was an eight hour workshop,” Cheick Diarra said. “‘Live From Mars’ was downloaded to 85 sites, universities and museums, teachers and classrooms, and to 11 international sites. We had an incredible response. We got 30-50 questions every day from students and teachers.”

Simulation is key to engaging the imagination. A physical recreation of the Martian terrain enabled children to take turns driving the rover. Plans call for later Martian rovers to be directed by teams of scientists working together online.

Does that raise the possibility of techno-terrorists taking over the rover a la James Bond? Not according to one experienced hacker, who said, “Exploring satellites is extremely hard work. It takes many, very talented people working together for a long time to get even a few minutes of access. Even then, repeated access is nearly impossible without starting the whole process all over again.”

Long term projects engage classrooms in extended virtual simulations as well as physical simulations. The Educational Space Simulations Project collects teachers into a corps who have already performed hundreds of educational space simulations that parallel reality as closely as possible. Students are involved in every aspect of the journey.

One way NASA funds educational activities is through the National Space Grants Colleges and Fellowship Program, designed to create government and university partnerships and align teachers with its plans.

No, it isn’t a conspiracy, laughed Mary Urquhart, an astronomer who developed a curriculum for training students in Colorado. Her lessons on colonizing Mars lead to the tangible reward of a certificate that certifies students as Martian colonists.

“It’s a convergence of mutual self-interest,” she said, describing the partnerships among businesses, schools, and government much as Eisenhower characterized the military-industrial complex.

“Mutual self-interest” spawns a multitude of web-based organizations. The National Space Society is one of many grass-roots organizations using the Web to gain membership. Their numbers — 80 chapters world-wide and 25,000 members — struck me as high, so I asked about the source of their funds. They receive “donations from the aerospace industry to do educational outreach” and are part of a consortium made up of two non-profits and dozens of aerospace companies.

Others are looking beyond Mars and using the Net to share their dreams.

“To find life, the best place in the solar system is the body that has an ocean,” said Eugene Shoemaker, a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. “I think there’s an even more important place to go than Mars. Europa is a better bet and it’s more accessible. If

there’s life there, it ought not be hard to find.”

The Whole Mars Catalog on the WWW is “a roadmap for the exploration of the solar system in the 2000-2015 time frame.” Its intention is to “make solar system exploration a part of human experience on earth.”

Deep space exploration will combine manned expeditions with the deploying of intelligent semi-autonomous robotic agents in space. As the interface between digital and corporeal reality becomes seamless, and agents on the Net are socketed to agents in space, the Internet and its fractal intranet offspring will be both symbol and vehicle of the dispersion of the human sensory apparatus in a way that contracts space-time like the pull of a drawstring. Just as the physical simulation of the rover morphs into a virtual simulation on the Net, our “hive mind” is swarming into virtual worlds as a way to extend human consciousness.

Cheick Diarra was polite about the vision of Robert Zubrin, published as “The Case for Mars,” a summary of which is on the Net. Zubrin was a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin and is the founder of Pioneer Astronautics, a space‑exploration research and development firm. He also chairs the executive committee of the National Space Society.

Zubrin suggests that we send to Mars only what we need to get there plus the technology needed to make what we’ll need to live and to return home.

Diarra agrees that Zubrin is a brilliant theorist. Funding for risky, cheap future missions may well be funded by corporate interests seeking a return on their investment. But, he cautions, let’s take it one step at a time. Let’s find out first if humans can stand the radiation or survive the cold nights. Let’s send the robots first and do our homework.

Diarra’s respect for the dangers of interplanetary travel is understandable. That’s why I was surprised by the conspicuous absence of any reference to dangers or the possibility of “enemies.” As I clicked through Mars-on-the-Net like a mouse in a maze, I felt as if I were moving through a simulated Disneyland from which all unpleasant reality had been screened.

When Europeans moved into South Africa and North America, after all, they encountered indigenous peoples. Wasn’t it likely that we would meet somebody out there?

I couldn’t resist: I asked about public statements by two American astronauts, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper, relating experiences with unidentified flying objects. Slayton described an encounter in Minnesota when he was a test pilot. Cooper called for an investigation of UFO phenomena by the UN based on his experiences. Both were ignored.

This is the response from Kennedy Space Center:

“You can’t take away peoples’ individual experiences, and that’s what they are. You don’t have experiences of other world organizations contacting US organizations or the military, you have individual experiences. We can’t take away an experience that an individual has undergone. But if we haven’t been involved as an organization we can’t validate it.

“Obviously these things go on, without anybody clearing it with NASA. But as an organization, we can’t speak to the experience unless the organization had experienced it and can say ‘we as NASA’ have experienced it.”

“You mean you still have to go to the store and buy bread if this is happening?”

“Exactly. Everything still continues to go on, regardless of the fact that people have experiences like that. Does NASA focus their efforts on that or do what we feel is scientifically important for the masses? Taxpayers fund us, and taxpayers want improvement in the environment, an understanding of the universe, and to explore new places. That takes the lion’s share of NASA’s attention.”

The Internet is a mirror in which we see our “hive mind” as it evolves, feeding back to us images of our evolving “selves.” The Net is also socketed into telerobotic extensions of ourselves in space-time, a seamless digital interface with Sojourner and her more autonomous descendants.

The exploration of outer space as experienced on the Internet is simultaneously an exploration of inner space. The further out we go, the more conscious of ourselves we become.

The map approaches but never quite equals the territory.

Toddlers, that’s what we are, coming down our steps for the first time, dreaming of crossing the road.

Taking baby steps.

Or as the web site on Mars says: “That’s one giant click for mankind.”

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

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