Other wonders

03 Dec 2018


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE news from Pakistan hasn’t been particularly heartening of late, what with the prime minister’s periodic cloud-cuckoo-land statements, the continuing inquiries into the affairs of those who have in the past been entrusted with keeping the ship of state afloat, and so on. In the week past, one of the major — and depressing stories — was about the chaos in the financial markets and the plunge experienced by the rupee. The show, as they say, goes on.

Meanwhile, far from the blinding light, in other places and departments, events of dizzying excitement are taking place. This past week, the big story was the Mars landing. The pictures that came out of the Nasa control room were heart-warming enough to make one smile in solidarity: some of the world’s top scientists, engineers and mathematicians weeping in exultation as the InSight spacecraft touched down on the surface of the red planet, distilling down into a few nail-biting seconds the work of several lifetimes.

The unmanned craft is by most standards quite small, but it is the work of genius technology and research. The touchdown last Monday was the end of a seven-month, 485-million-kilometre journey from California that started earlier this year. It is the first robot to land on our neighbour since 2012.

Events of dizzying excitement are taking place such as the newest Mars landing.

The InSight is certainly not the first craft to have made a Mars landing — eight missions have been successful so far, and the presence of robots on the red planet is growing. But what makes this latest venture utterly remarkable is the fact that the touchdown was achieved with Nasa scientists’ hands off the controls. This was most critical during what started being referred to as the ‘seven minutes of terror’ during the most difficult part of the mission: the entry and then burning descent through the Martian atmosphere, and the deployment of the parachute and lander legs, till there was contact with the surface. Those ‘seven minutes’ refer to the time that elapsed between the InSight first hitting the planet’s atmosphere to the moment of safe landing.

Why it was a feat worthy of such exultation was because it was managed without any real-time input from Earth. This involved years if not decades of complex mathematical and technological calculations, from the micro to the macro, and strings of precise commands that had to be worked out, coded and pre-programmed into the craft. Failure was not an option, and it is a testament to the determination of humanity that neither was giving up. It took dozens of the brightest minds on our planet to keep pegging away through the challenges.

There are, of course, those left cold by the sort of excitement this event has been generating. For them the question is, what’s the point of being able to put another robot on Mars. InSight is different from its elder siblings. It is not wheeled and will not be rolling about on the Martian surface transmitting images and information. Its job is to drill and investigate the crust — if it can correctly be defined so — from the inside. There is perhaps no more noble quest than that for information, carried out in the spirit of research.

Yet beyond that, there is the ultimate dream of humanity being able to shuffle off the coils that bind it to Earth, so to speak, make manned space travel a reality, and colonise another planet. SpaceX, the space research/ exploration company founded by Elon Musk, is reportedly working quietly and unobtrusively with Nasa scientists and engineers towards its aspirational goal of landing the first humans on Mars by 2024 — which, if you really think about it, is almost just a heartbeat away. The SpaceX mission is to orchestrate a two-way journey, with material being taken from Earth for the astronauts, and facilities and plants being built on the Martian surface to support human life.

Reaching Mars is not the only inspiration. This September, the company ann­ounced that art curator Yusaku Maezawa will be the first private passenger to fly around the Moon. That is planned for 2023. Of the perhaps two dozen people who have been fortunate enough to have experience of the lunar landscape, the last visitor was in 1972. SpaceX’s inaugural private lunar passenger flight is planned as part of a weeklong mission to help the development of the Starship and Super Heavy Rocket (formerly known as the BFR) that will hopefully pave the way for ordinary people who dream of spaceflight.

There does exist the other point of view. A large part of the push towards space is that the Earth is rapidly running out of the resources to support burgeoning humanity. So, goes the argument, will we now aim for other planets so we can pillage those too?

Still, it can’t really be denied that reaching such heights in science, technology and space travel is dizzying.

The writer is a member of staff.


Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2018